Published in the Spring 2011 issue of SSA Magazine

Rethinking the role of grandmothers when a mother is incarcerated

Since 1980, the number of women behind bars has doubled every seven to eight years—today approximately 200,000 women are in federal and state prisons or local jails on any given day. The majority, as much as 70 percent according to one study, are the mothers of minor children. Most often, the responsibility for caring for these children while the mother is incarcerated falls to the child’s grandparents, and in the vast majority of those cases, the grandmother.

These families are not only taxed by the inherent difficulties involved in grandparent caregiving, but also by the stresses associated with the mother’s incarceration, a high prevalence of substance abuse (up to four in five incarcerated women by one estimate), and often the long-term effects of poverty, trauma and mental health problems.

“There’s growing recognition that one person may be incarcerated, but the entire family does the time,” SSA Assistant Professor Malitta Engstrom says. Engstrom is drawing upon this notion to design family-focused services for women who are incarcerated. Research in this area has largely overlooked the unique roles, issues and responsibilities of grandmothers. “Grandmothers are a vital missing link in these family-oriented interventions,” Engstrom says, “however, there’s been little intervention research that includes them in services for mothers who are incarcerated.”

In 2008, Engstrom wrote “Involving Caregiving Grandmothers in Family Interventions when Mothers with Substance Use Problems are Incarcerated,” a paper in Family Process that examines the theoretical and empirical support for such an approach. In her ongoing work on the topic, including interviews with mothers and grandmothers, she’s found that the families often experience complex challenges related to incarceration, substance abuse, health problems and limited financial resources.

“I have also found that the families often remain close, despite the challenges they face. Building upon the strengths of these bonds is critically important,” says Engstrom, who is currently working with families regarding what a family-focused intervention should look like. “I want to hear from mothers and grandmothers about how they see their strengths, their needs and their service preferences. I want to hear about the types of services they actually want and think would be helpful,” she says. The result, she hopes, will be programs that enhance well-being throughout the family, reduce the negative impact of time served and the risk of substance-use problems and re-incarceration.

— David Argentar

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