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