The Re-Unite project aimed to address a long-known failing of the criminal justice system: that women exiting prison can’t get custody of their children because they don’t have a family house, and are unable to access family housing because they don’t have custody of their children. Not only does this mean that ex-offenders are placed at increased risk of homelessness and re-offending, but it also keeps mothers away from their children and prevents them from reuniting as a family.
This injustice has long since been known to prison and probation managers, third sector providers, and of course the offenders and ex-offenders themselves. The project originally came about in response to the Corston Report into women in the criminal justice system in 2006, which highlighted the inadequate support structures and inflexible housing policies preventing women from reforming their families after leaving prison. In partnership with Housing for Women and Women in Prison, Commonweal launched the Re-Unite project in 2007, aiming to demonstrate that mothers and children who have been separated by imprisonment can be successfully reunited and indeed, thrive when obstacles are removed and when timely support is provided.
The goals of the Re-Unite Project were:
- Children are kept out of the care system (where it is in their best interests)
- Families are reunited and supported in suitable, stable family housing
- Mothers lead less chaotic, more healthy lives and desist from offending
- Children and young people access sufficient support
Initially piloted in South London, the programme was later replicated across the country by a range of community and social organisations, tailored to suit local families’ needs and circumstances.
“If it weren’t for [Re-Unite], I think to myself, where would I be?” – Service User
The Re-Unite Model
During the initial phase of the project, the Re-Unite programme provided in-prison support to identify potential service users at an early stage, and provide advice and support on the nature and requirements of finding housing and the reunification process.
Two services were offered:
- The Mothers’ Programme that provided small flats or studios for women leaving prison with more challenging problems, to allow them to work with support agencies to get to a stage where they may be eligible for the return of their children to their care.
- The Mothers’ and Children’s Programme, which provided family housing on the point of release for women leaving prison to reunite them swiftly with their children. Family support was provided to enable the successful reunion of the mother and children and development of the family. The families were also helped to access specialist support, such as counselling, mentoring, substance misuse and mental health services.
Following work done by our partners in the Re-Unite Network, the scope of the Re-Unite project was subsequently expanded to include a new focus on the impacts of maternal imprisonment on children.
Where there is no one to take care of a child after the arrest of a parent, the child’s world often changes beyond comprehension – they may need to stay with relatives for a considerable time, or be taken into care by social services; their social networks are affected; their school life may suffer. The Re-Unite Network is now committed to seeking ways to tackle this injustice, and supporting other organisations to promote appropriate solutions. This could include, for example, courts being advised to formally consider the impacts on children during sentencing.
“The Re-Unite project is a very good idea. I think it is really important for women who have been offending to get this support when they come out of prison.” – Probation Officer
An initial evaluation of the South London project was published in 2010 by the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. With the evaluators involved with the project from the beginning, they were able to base their analysis on extensive interviews with project partners, social workers, and – most importantly – offenders and their children. Detailed follow-up evaluations of the project were undertaken in 2013 and 2015, and a comprehensive review of the ten years of project delivery is currently being prepared by Commonweal for publication in summer 2017.
The evaluations concluded that:
- Service users and their children benefited from the provision of housing and support. All the women interviewed were generally happy with their accommodation; most said they would have been living in a hostel or other temporary accommodation without the Re-Unite project.
- The personal support from Re-Unite workers was highly valued. Service users had varying degrees of support from families and friends – very little in some cases. Most had relocated within London to their Re-Unite home to distance themselves from malign influences and valued the supportive and friendly professional advice they received on such issues as budgeting, benefits, debt management and healthy eating.
- The children interviewed were extremely positive about Re-Unite. They particularly liked the size of their new homes and the Re-Unite activities and outings, which included family trips to London Zoo and Brighton. All the children had been obliged to move house on the imprisonment of their mothers, and most had witnessed the domestic violence against their mothers. Mothers reported that their children’s behaviour had improved while they were on the Re-Unite project and that the referral of their children by key workers to specialist support services had been very helpful.
- In terms of re-offending, there were no reconvictions that came to light during the evaluation period. However, one service user was recalled to prison and another had been charged with further offences.
- There is a powerful economic case for the Re-Unite project. Re-Unite’s annual personal care costs of £14,825 a client, while the cost benefits of the Re-Unite project to society were estimated as being £86,084 per service user over two years.
Over the ten years of our involvement with Re-Unite, the project has evolved and adapted in response to on-going evaluation, lessons learned, and a changing political environment. In keeping with Commonweal’s mission of acting as an incubator of innovative housing solutions to social injustice, we decided to step back from the day-to-day administration of the project in 2014, handing over the coordination and future development of Re-Unite to a partnership between Anawim and Women’s Breakout. These two highly respected organisations bring many years experience of supporting women in the criminal justice system, with proven expertise in delivering both strategic and local excellence.
With the initial Re-Unite housing stock now handed back to Commonweal for use in new programmes, our role in the Re-Unite project is coming to an end. We are marking the ten year anniversary of the project with a major new report on the impact, implications, and policy lessons of the Re-Unite project, which will be published in summer 2017.
Sarah* had never been in trouble with the police before the incident that led to her prison sentence. Her younger sister had an altercation with several friends. Pushing and shoving occurred and Sarah got involved. The main victim received injuries to the face from a broken bottle held by Sarah.
Although Sarah acknowledges that she was the perpetrator of the injuries, it was not her intention to injure the victim, and she was trying to protect her younger sister. Sarah was sentenced to 20 months for GBH, and spent 10 months in Holloway prison. Her daughter, Catherine, was just over three years old when her mother went to prison, and lived with her dad. Sarah and Catherine’s father separated whilst Sarah served her sentence.
When Sarah was due to be released she faced homelessness, and with minimal employment experience and no qualifications she had very few options to improve her situation. Sarah was referred to the Re-Unite program by Holloway Prison, and following an interview to assess her, she was accepted. This meant that upon coming out of prison there was a home for her and her daughter to move into, and support services for her rehabilitation.
It was a huge step for her to leave her support network in North London, but Re-Unite helped to find her a new school and move her in. The broader support services that Re-Unite provide proved invaluable for Sarah to help her to establish routines and reduce anxiety about separation from her daughter while she was at school. The hours that the support worker put in were clearly beneficial.
Sarah is now in education, training as an accountant. She is ready to move on from the Re-Unite scheme when a property becomes available, and she is excited by this. She has engaged well with the Re-Unite program and benefited not just from being provided with a home, but from the dedicated support that allowed her to uncover some broader challenges related to her rehabilitation.
*names have been changed