Mother-Child Programs for Incarcerated Mothers and Children and Associated Health Outcomes: A Scoping Review

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Incarceration of Women, Mother-Child Care Programs, Scoping Review, Harm Mitigation, Parenting


Background: Increasing incarceration of women disrupts fertility, family formation, parenting and mother–child relationships. It is common in many jurisdictions, including Canada, to mitigate the harm of separation from the primary parent through programs allowing children to co-reside with their mothers in prison. In this scoping review, we asked the following questions: (1) What are the characteristics of residential mother–child programs in carceral facilities? (2) Who is eligible to participate? (3) How do these programs make a difference to maternal and child health outcomes? Method: We use the Joanna Briggs Institute methodology for systematic scoping reviews. This approach includes a three-step search strategy developed with a clinical research librarian. Databases searched include MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Gender Studies Abstracts, Google Scholar and ProQuest Dissertations. The search yielded 1,499 titles and abstracts, of which 27 met the criteria for inclusion. Results: Conducted from 1989 to 2019, across 12 countries, the studies included qualitative and quantitative methods. None was based in Canada. The most common outcomes among the studies included attachment, development, infection, neonatal outcomes, mental health, pregnancy and general experiences. Discussion: Although supporting attachment, mother–child program participation is complex and challenging. High morbidity in the incarcerated population and lack of data collection before and after program participation prevent conclusions, and wide variations in contexts prevent comparisons. Benefits from Reading: This scoping review illustrates the complexity of maternal and child health outcomes associated with mother–child programs. Initiation or continuation of or changes to such programs must be made with careful consideration.