Stacey Shor­tall

Lead­ing lawyer Stacey is a con­duit for women pris­on­ers and their chil­dren.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - REHABILITATION -

Once a month, Stacey Shor­tall and a band of fel­low women lawyers pay a visit to the Auck­land Re­gion Women’s Cor­rec­tions Fa­cil­ity (ARWC) in Wiri, to talk to im­pris­oned moth­ers. They all give their time free of charge to sit down and lis­ten to the pris­on­ers, to help them main­tain, or re­pair, re­la­tion­ships with their chil­dren on the out­side. It’s called the Moth­ers Project, and was cre­ated by Stacey – one of the coun­try’s lead­ing lawyers – af­ter she was part of a sim­i­lar al­tru­is­tic pro­gramme in New York. “If you can keep a mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ship be­tween a mum and her chil­dren while she’s in­side, it cre­ates a more re­al­is­tic en­vi­ron­ment when she’s re­leased,” Stacey says. While work­ing as a top Wall Street lit­i­ga­tor, Stacey be­came in­volved in pro bono work, es­pe­cially with vul­ner­a­ble women and chil­dren. That led to her vol­un­teer­ing for a decade at a Man­hat­tan prison on the In­car­cer­ated Moth­ers Pro­gram, help­ing women un­der­stand their rights and obli­ga­tions to their chil­dren. Re­turn­ing home to New Zealand, she looked at what women lawyers here were do­ing to give back, and ini­ti­ated a trial for the Moth­ers Project at ARWC, en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers at her firm, Min­terEl­lisonRud­dWatts, to give their time too. The project has now been run­ning for more than two years, and this year will be repli­cated at Aro­hata Prison. Stacey’s mo­ti­va­tion to grow the project is sim­ple. “I want to help the chil­dren,” says the mother of four. “Chil­dren aren’t re­spon­si­ble for their mother’s of­fend­ing. They are just an­other vic­tim. These women want their kids to know that even though they’re in a prison, they haven’t stopped think­ing about them and want­ing what’s best for them. If we are just one mech­a­nism of how those kids are re­minded of that, then that’s the im­pact we want to have. “Some peo­ple have quite tough views around women in­side. But I think the great equaliser is that many of these women have chil­dren, and I think ev­ery­one in New Zealand wants what’s best for ev­ery child. “At any given time, there are 20,000 kids with a par­ent in­car­cer­ated in New Zealand. If we can keep those fam­i­lies strong, we get a stronger com­mu­nity. And stronger com­mu­ni­ties make a stronger coun­try.” The 30 or so lawyers who vol­un­teer for the Moth­ers Project be­come a con­duit be­tween moth­ers and their chil­dren, or their chil­dren’s care­givers. They help the women to un­der­stand their rights, to com­pre­hend le­gal pa­per­work, or they ask ques­tions on their be­half. “We make a lot of calls, and most of the ques­tions are quite sim­ple. They know their child is in CYFs care, but they just want to know how the child is do­ing. Are they go­ing to school, are they play­ing sport, do they have friends?” Stacey says. “They want to un­der­stand why things have hap­pened. If stuff keeps hap­pen­ing to you, you quickly be­come pow­er­less and you feel an­gered by it. Some­times a lot of the best work we do in the Moth­ers Project is un­rav­el­ling a com­plex ball of string and ex­plain­ing what started this, and why it’s hap­pened.” It’s not only moth­ers and chil­dren who’ve prof­ited from this project, Stacey has dis­cov­ered. It has en­abled women lawyers like her­self, who work in a com­mer­cial cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ment, to spend time with women they would prob­a­bly never have en­coun­tered. “It’s given us a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on the lives of other women; how some land where they do, and the chal­lenges they face,” says Stacey, who has acted on Can­ter­bury and Welling­ton earth­quake is­sues and rep­re­sented Pike River di­rec­tors and of­fi­cers fol­low­ing the 2010 mine tragedy. Hav­ing worked with more than 100 women at Wiri, Stacey mea­sures the project’s suc­cess by “the fact they come back to see us ev­ery month – it’s a sign that there’s a gen­uine de­sire to know what’s go­ing on with their chil­dren and to be in­volved with that. “In New York, I saw the idea that main­tain­ing mean­ing­ful re­la­tion­ships had a cor­re­la­tion with the like­li­hood of a woman re­of­fend­ing. If you re­ally want a woman to think dif­fer­ently about how she is go­ing to live post-re­lease, then hav­ing a strong con­nec­tion to her chil­dren, hav­ing her chil­dren be­come part of that group who will say to her, ‘I need you to be good here, Mum,’ can be very pow­er­ful. “Chil­dren can be the sta­bil­is­ing force.”

Stronger com­mu­ni­ties make a stronger coun­try.

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