The Mothers Project has been running in New Zealand women's prisons since 2015 and connects lawyers with incarcerated mums to help them understand their parental rights and in many cases, to locate their kids and rebuild family connections. Senior crime and justice reporter Anna Leask spent a morning with lawyers and inmates to see how the project works.

Rebecca was a solo mum to five kids.

Her youngest was 5, just getting into the swing of school life and her eldest fast approaching 18.

Rebecca was their world, their only provider - the only parent they had known properly.

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And then, she was gone.

She was arrested, charged with criminal offending and remanded in custody to await a trial.

That was a year ago, and Rebecca has only just been able to get contact again with her brood.

The youngest four are split between two Oranga Tamariki carers and the now 18-year-old is fending for herself.

Until recently, Rebecca had no idea where her little ones were.

She had no idea where they were, how to find them - if they wanted to see her.

Now she has been approved for regular audio visual link visits with her kids, which has made her time inside much easier and strengthened her resolve to get past her alleged offending and carve out a better life for her family.

She is one of more than 300 female inmates who have turned to the Mothers Project for help in tracking down, reconnecting with and rebuilding their families.

The project sees volunteer lawyers enter New Zealand's three women's prisons and assist mothers to understand where their children are, who is caring for them and what the mothers need to do in order to preserve their legal rights.

Volunteers make calls to Oranga Tamariki, family members, caregivers, schools and Legal Aid lawyers, to open communication lines and share information, and arrange prison calls and visits with children as appropriate.

The project is run by award-winning Wellington lawyer Stacey Shortall, who worked on a similar scheme during a stint in New York.

Wellington lawyer, Stacey Shortall talks about the Mothers Project. Photo / Greg Bowker
Wellington lawyer, Stacey Shortall talks about the Mothers Project. Photo / Greg Bowker

There, Shortall was part of the Volunteers of Legal Service on the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project at Bayview Correctional Facility.

Among the women Shortall represented at the Manhattan prison were mothers facing termination of their parental rights, a mother sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for the murder of her abusive boyfriend and for a refugee mother who had been tortured, including rape.

When she returned to New Zealand, she set about establishing a similar project here.

Why?

It is estimated that 87 per cent of our female inmates are mums - the majority of them primary or sole caregivers.

"Once inside, it can be difficult for mothers to maintain meaningful relationships with their children and for those children to have their mother's emotional support," Shortall said.

"We really become a connection point, a facilitator of contact between mums and whoever has information around their children.

"The purpose of the project is really to try and enable meaningful connections between mums and their kids and to help those children as a result of that.

"That's really where our focus is, on the children of the women that are inside."

According to government statistics, the children of inmates are about five times more likely to end up in prison than the children of never-imprisoned parents.

"Good relationships between mothers and their children can benefit child wellbeing and reduce parent reoffending," said Shortall.

Each month, she and about 40 other female lawyers visit the women's prisons at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and walk from unit to unit giving mums on the inside an opportunity to come and speak to them.

Women in New Zealand prisons are being helped by volunteer lawyers to get contact with their kids after they are locked up. Photo / Greg Bowker
Women in New Zealand prisons are being helped by volunteer lawyers to get contact with their kids after they are locked up. Photo / Greg Bowker

"A lot of the questions we get are: 'I've got three or four children I don't know where they are' or 'I do know where they are, I'm supposed to be having contact with them but I'm not receiving any calls or letters' or 'I'm not getting any visits' or 'I've been served with a bunch of court papers around my children, I don't know what they mean' or 'I have just arrived at prison, I was the primary and sole caregiver, and I basically walked out of that home and I want to know that they are still at school, that they are being looked after, they're healthy'.

"Our lawyers come in, mum meets with them and with her permission make calls to caregivers, Oranga Tamariki, family lawyers and they provide info to us that we can share with the mothers when we next come in."

Shortall said engaging with the Mothers Project was a turning point for many women behind bars.

From her work in New York, she knew women who did not have a meaningful connection with their kids had less of an incentive to try harder inside, "to turn the corner on some of their demons".

"The likelihood that when they returned to the community that they would stay on a straighter path was low, there was a lot of reoffending," Shortall explained.

"We found in that project that for the women where their relationship with their children had been appropriately facilitated, then that gave them an incentive to do better, to try harder, to stay away from some of the triggers in their life that had been a problem in the past.

"And then when they came out if they'd had an ongoing connection, they were also realistic around the situation their kids were in.

"If you come inside and you've got an 8-year-old child and you come out and your child is 13, a lot has changed for them.

"So coming out and having contact and being aware of where they're at, what's going on in their lives, they're just more realistic around re-entering appropriately into a day-to-day if not that a more regular contact cycle with their kids and that helps the mothers stay on track. Ultimately I hope it will help reduce reoffending, which is a big feeder of our prison population for women in New Zealand."

The project is built around helping mums, but the overriding aim is to better the lives of their children.

Shortall said children of female inmates benefited hugely from the contact the project was able to facilitate.

But how?

"I think knowing that their mum is thinking of them, loves them - simple messages," Shortall said.

"A lot of what we're asked to communicate through to caregivers is simply that mum turned up voluntarily - this is not a programme that she had to do inside - she came up to a volunteer lawyer, participated in the Mother's Project for that lawyer to send a message to her child that she loves that child; that she wants what's best for that child; that she's thinking of them; that it matters to her that she or he is going to school, has friends, is engaging in sport. They are simple reminders to kids that no one has forgotten anyone.

"Sometimes silence can be misinterpreted and misconstrued and prison creates silence, it creates walls, it's very difficult for a mother inside to communicate with the outside.

"We're just trying to open those lines of communication, let kids know that mum's thinking of them. loves them, wants what's best for them and hopefully that stabilises them and gives them a good solid platform that hopefully keeps them on a solid path."

Rebecca is one inmate whose life changed the day she sat down with a Mothers Project lawyer.

She has a criminal lawyer for her upcoming trial, but family matters are not part of that job description.

After her initial arrest she was released on electronically monitored bail so she could return to her kids.

But that "didn't work out" and she hasn't seen or been able to speak to the youngest four since the pin was pulled on her bail.

Her 18-year-old visits when she can.

"That's pretty sad," said Rebecca.

"When I came back into the unit I finally got the courage to come and see the Mother's Project - one of the other inmates pushed me to see if they would help me with my children.

"I wanted to know where they were and they were able to find out."

Through working with the lawyers she has been approved for AVL visits, which are set to start this month.

"It's pretty exciting," said Rebecca, tears welling in her eyes as she thinks of the loves of her life.

"It means everything to me - everything.

"I was a solo parent to all of them so being on remand and having to leave them all has been really hard.

Rebecca constantly wonders about the caregivers her kids have been placed with.

"Every day, every night before I go to sleep I wonder where they are and how they are," she said.

"All I worry about here is whether the person is giving them Weet-Bix or Coco Pops.Every day is hard, but at least if I can see if they are happy or if they are sad, it will give me some hope.

"I know I'll be able to talk to them, to reassure them that I am still around and hopefully things will be better."

Knowing she can continue in her role as a mum, albeit limited, has helped her see a light at the end of the tunnel, has given her a new focus.

"Seeing them, it's something to look forward to, something to keep working on. It gives me hope every day," she said.

"If I can have contact with my kids, it give me something to work for… they are everything to me."

Shortall said it was important to remember that while mothers in prison had parental rights and responsibilities - they were also there for a reason.

Criminal - or alleged - offending.

Rose has two sons on the outside and has been helped by the Mothers Project to get regular contact with them. Photo / Greg Bowker
Rose has two sons on the outside and has been helped by the Mothers Project to get regular contact with them. Photo / Greg Bowker

"You hear very sad stories, but all of our volunteers are mindful that all of these women are in here for criminal offending, so they've create victims, and we don't lose sight of that," she said.

"But notwithstanding that situation, the overwhelming majority of the women that we deal with have been victimised themselves - violence is very, very common with the women that we deal with.

"Many of them have drug and alcohol addiction issues, mental health issues are very prevalent in the types of women that come and see us."

Rose has done multiple lags since 2013.

Her two boys have been in the permanent care of their paternal grandmother from the day of her first arrest.

She's been on remand awaiting a trial for three years this time around, and is looking at a lengthy sentence.

That means a lengthy time away from her children.

Before she engaged with the project lawyers, she saw the boys "occasionally" and struggled with the lack of contact.

"It is hard," she said.

She isn't keen on the boys visiting her too often while she is on remand, she'd prefer to wait until she was sentenced and settled.

But she does want to hear their voices as often as she can.

Through the project, she's been able to reach out to the boys' grandmother and make that happen.

"Before that, I didn't know where to start," she said.

"I didn't know whether they wanted to come and see me or whether their guardian wanted them to come and see me.

"It was nice to have a lady ring up and be my voice for me - it helped… a lot.

"I had their guardian's number approved and her cellphone - she always has it with her.
It's excellent, I usually ring them after school, they are usually full of energy then.

"It's been excellent being able to contact them when I want to, and I can hear the excitement in their voices.

"It's good that I'm still in contact with them so they know I am still here - that was a big issue in their minds and I just wanted them to know that I am, and I'm alright.

"Without that contact, I'd be worrying if they're ok and vice versa."

Rose said there were not a lot of people in her life willing to help her, so she was thankful for the project.

"It's nice to know that any questions we have can get answers," she said.

"My lawyer couldn't really help me with the kids so it was nice for them to come and reach out for us, nobody else is here do that for us.

"I don't know what I'd do without them - I don't know what a lot of the ladies would do.

"Usually coming to prison is out of the blue for most women, you don't know when you're going to get arrested.

"It cuts off contact straight away between you and your family, so having someone that can reach out to them is just amazing.

"A lot of the girls don't know where their children are or if they will ever have contact with them.

"So it's great that the Mothers Project go out and do some important work for us

For Rebecca and Rose, the project has provided a much needed lifeline between them and their children.

But for many inmates, the story ends very differently.

"We're very careful to say to the mums look, we can't promise that we will do what you want us to do," Shortall explained.

"You might want us to facilitate visits with your children, you may not even know where your kids are and you want us to find your children, or you may know where they are but you want them moved.

"We don't know that we can do any of those things.

"We don't know whether it would be in the child's interests to do any of those things - and that's the guiding principle; we've got to all agree, us, you, society, that the priority here should be what's best for your child.

"I often talk to the women about managing expectations. I can't promise that we'll do it but I promise we'll try."

Shortall said often the lawyers, once initial calls had been made, found out they could not facilitate the contact the inmate wants with her kids.

"We have to tell these women those sorts of things, and they're not easy conversations always," she said.

"But even when you have to deliver the tough news, telling a woman what's going on and why matters.

"Many women just don't know, they are disempowered by the fact that they're not sure what has caused them to end up in a situation where they're not allowed to see their children - and they rail against the state because they feel like it's someone else's fault.

"And when you actually get the file and you can work slowly and carefully through that and help them understand that because of things that happened in the past decisions were made with the objective being to protect the child they may not like it but the overwhelming majority of the women that we work with will accept it because for the first time they're actually understanding it.

"We give plenty of tough news as well as good news."

When the good news come, Shortall said it "lifts a load" from the women.

"Even the smallest piece of information, it does lift a load - you can visibly see it in front of you," she said.

"And then if we can facilitate a photograph, that's magic in some ways.

"And then if you can extend that to some letters, some calls, a visit…

"I've seen some women that when I first met them just seemed deeply, deeply sad - you start seeing some more positivity and happiness in them and I think that from those little inklings you can start to encourage someone that life's not all bad, that not everyone's out to get you, some people actually genuinely want to help you and now you can start helping yourself, start reaching for those things."

Auckland Regional Women's Prison director Cheryl Mikaere. Photo / Greg Bowker
Auckland Regional Women's Prison director Cheryl Mikaere. Photo / Greg Bowker

Auckland Regional Women's Prison director Cheryl Mikaere said the Mothers Project had filled an important gap for her inmates.

"Quite a few of our wahine do not know the ins and outs of the legal system, and our Corrections officers don't either," she said.

"So to have Stacey and her team helping to fill that gap is absolutely brilliant.

"The feedback from our wahine who have been in the programme confirms that - for me, it's an absolute positive.

"We cannot do it by ourselves, we need the support of a lot of agencies already in the community to make that transition for our wahine smoother and the Mothers Project does that as well."

Mikaere said the biggest anxiety her inmates faced, particularly when they first came to prison, was around their kids.

Many were arrested when their children were at school, so there was tremendous fear and worry around what would happen to them - who would pick them up, where would they go?

"Since Stacey and her team have been on site it's certainly showed positive outcomes for our wahine and that's why we're here," she said.

"The ideal is that there would be no wahine in prisons at all.

"Until that day, we still need to have that support for our wahine, for mothers and babies so that they definitely go back into the community contributing in a positive way and also the babies who will become children and adults do not come in - we break those offending cycles.

"For me this is our best opportunity to break that intergenerational reoffending cycle.

"And with the wahine being the mothers, the nature nurturers, the procreaters of life, this is their opportunity to stop that cycle of reoffending."

Rebecca is not the inmate's real name. To protect the privacy of her children neither she or her alleged offending can be identified.

To find out more about the Mothers Project, click here.