Monday 28 November 2016

Connecting mums in jail with their kids

Charity provides updates, tapes them reading children's stories so kids can hear their voices
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 27 Nov 2016

Salma (not her real name) was racked with guilt, self-loathing and anxiety about her four children's well-being while she was in jail.

She was incarcerated for close to five years for drug trafficking in 2010.

After she and her husband were arrested for drug offences, her children were split up and cared for by two different relatives.

The children were then between 20 months and 10 years old.

Salma, who was released last year, said: "I was a horrible mother as I caused my children to suffer. I had no news of them and I thought of them every day (when I was in jail)."

The 51-year-old housewife saw them only thrice in the first four years of her sentence - her second for drug offences.

Her children were too young to visit her on their own and volunteers took them to the Changi Women's Prison on Mother's Day.

It meant the world to her when volunteers from New Life Stories - a charity that helps incarcerated mothers and their children - visited her in jail regularly, encouraged her and updated her with news about her children.

They also taught her to read children's stories, taped her reading and passed the voice recordings to her children so they could hear her voice and know that she loves them.

Ms Saleemah Ismail, who co-founded the charity in 2014, said the biggest source of anguish for incarcerated mothers was being separated from their children.

"Some had no news of their children at all, while others said their children rejected them as they felt abandoned by their mums," she said.

"We thought if we could help to heal strained ties between mother and child, this would help the women to change for the better and stay out of trouble."

Ms Saleemah also realised that many of the inmates' children could not speak or read English when they started school, putting them at a serious disadvantage as they struggled with subjects taught in English.

So on top of getting the mothers to read to their children, volunteers visited thekids twice a week for two and a half years to read storybooks with them to help them learn English and pick up values the stories in the books impart, such as courage and perserverance.

She said: "We don't want these kids to be left behind in the educational system because of their mothers' incarceration."

Since the charity started its Early Reader programme in 2014, 37 women and 69 children have been on it.

Most of these women are divorced, unmarried or have had no contact with their children's fathers. Some also have husbands in jail. They have an average of four children each.

Many are behind bars for drug offences, said Ms Saleemah, and often, grandparents have to step in to look after the children.

She told The Sunday Times the charity plans to expand the programme next year but declined to share more information. Its other co-founder is Ms Melissa Kwee, chief executive of the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre. Ms Kwee co-founded New Life Stories in her personal capacity.

Ms Saleemah said the results of the Early Reader programme have been promising, with the children showing "considerable" improvement in their ability to read.

For example, Salma's 10-year-old daughter, Zizi (not her real name) used to struggle as she could not understand what her teachers were teaching but with the Early Reader volunteers' guidance, her English has improved significantly.

She told The Sunday Times she scored 46 out of 50 for a recent English test. Zizi, who lived with her aunt when her parents were incarcerated, said she was thrilled to hear her mother reading stories to her.

She said of her mother: "I missed her. At times, I forgot what she looked like so I imagined (her appearance). My younger sister always asked me, where's mother? I explained to her that she's in prison but she did not understand."

Another beneficiary Sue, 45, said she was surprised and proud to find that her two children, aged eight and nine, could speak and read English proficiently when she was released from jail last year after three years behind bars. It was her fourth jail term for drug offences.

She said she was overjoyed when her son, the eight-year-old, was awarded a good progress award in school recently.

When she and her husband, who was also caught for drug offences, were in jail, her parents took care of her children. Early Reader volunteers visited and read to her children every week.

Sue, who declined to give her full name as she told her children she was seriously ill in hospital to hide the fact of her imprisonment, said: "In the past, I never think about my children as I was addicted (to heroin). When I was in jail and with all that counselling, I missed my children so much and I told myself that I have to change and be a good and responsible mother."

Care initiative reaches out to 1,600 affected children
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 27 Nov 2016

There were 1,118 women in jail at the end of last year but the Singapore Prison Service declined to say how many of these women have children.

In 2012, a scheme was started to ensure that children of newly incarcerated women are cared for and given the help they need to cope, the prison service spokesman told The Sunday Times.

The Initiative for Incarcerated Mothers and Affected Children was started because mothers are the main caregivers and there may not be anyone to look after the children when they are behind bars.

In about three in four of these cases, grandparents are the ones looking after the children when their mothers are in jail.

The rest include other relatives, fathers and non-relatives such as the mothers' friends, said the Singapore After-Care Association which runs the scheme.

Its social worker Evina Subani said: "Most of the time, the fathers are not around. Either they are divorced, not in the picture or they are also in jail."

Besides checking that there is someone to take care of the children, social workers would also assess if the children or their caregivers need more help to cope.

For example, the child may require counselling or the caregiver needs financial aid to get by.

Ms Subani said: "Children feel a very big sense of loss and grief as they are separated from their mothers. It is worse as many are not told their mothers are in jail as the mums or caregivers do not want their children to know out of shame."

If there is no relative or friend to care for the children, social workers would arrange for them to be placed in foster care, among other alternatives.

These children range from babies to teenagers, and the women have an average of three children each, Ms Subani said.

The scheme has reached out to about 1,600 children.

Focus on inter-generational crime
By Theresa Tan, The Sunday Times, 27 Nov 2016

The authorities are stepping up efforts to tackle the problem of inter-generational offending, when children - like their parents or grandparents before them - also get into trouble with the law.

There is no local data on the extent of the problem yet, said Ms Jessie Wong, assistant director of family policy at the Singapore Prison Service. But it is "not uncommon" to see offenders with other family members with criminal records, said social workers.

"You may have a father in jail and the son is also in jail, and this is especially so for drug offences. The parents may take drugs at home and the children learn (from seeing their example)," said Ms Wong. The lack of proper guidance as well as money woes and other stresses when a parent is jailed are other reasons why the child may mix with the wrong company and end up committing a crime, she added.

Mr Amrin Amin, Parliamentary Secretary of the Home Affairs Ministry, announced in May that the authorities want to focus more on helping inmates' children and reduce inter-generational offending.

He said a host of overseas research has shown that children are adversely affected by their parents' incarceration and are more likely to follow in their footsteps as a result.

Dr Sytske Besemer, of the University of California, Berkeley, who is researching on inter-generational continuity of criminal behaviour, told The Sunday Times the odds of offending for children with criminal parents are on average 2.5 times higher than for those with parents who are not offenders.

To do more for children of inmates, the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a charitable fund that helps offenders and their families, has a new initiative under its Yellow Brick Road programme, started in 2014 to help inmates families. For example, social workers link families up with financial or other forms of aid they need, such as finding a job. It also organises activities for inmates to bond with their children.

In July, the programme started offering tuition and enrichment workshops, such as in drama and music, for the children.

Separately, the Yellow Ribbon Community Project, which started in 2010, has grassroots volunteers visiting families of newly incarcerated inmates to see what help they need and link them up to help agencies. Since July, volunteers have also been trained to identify inmates' children who may need more help, such as in counselling or in their studies, and link agencies up to support these children.

A former convict who wanted to be known only as Ms Tay, 32, has two children aged 10 and 12 under the Yellow Brick Road tuition scheme. Since it started about a month ago, a tutor has been going to her home twice a week to coach her children.

The twice-divorced mother of four children, who was jailed for 11/2 years for drug consumption, said: "My daughter can concentrate better with individual tuition and it's free so I don't have to worry about the fees."

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