W&M receives grant to provide testing, support to incarcerated pregnant women

A group of William & Mary professors have received a grant that will provide testing and support for pregnant women who are in jail.

The W. K. Kellogg Foundation provided the $316,269 grant, which will fund two years of the program’s operation in local prisons beginning around May 1. Arrangements with potential locations are still being finalized; however, the program’s organizers expect the participating jails to be within the Richmond and Hampton Roads areas.

The program is being led by Associate Professor of Psychology Danielle Dallaire and Co-Principal Investigator Catherine Forestell, assistant professor of psychology. Also helping with the program are Assistant Professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences Scott Ickes and medical doctor and Adjunct Professor of Kinesiology and Health Sciences Camilla Buchanan.

One of the program’s first goals is to provide pregnancy tests to women in jail.

“That’s not something that’s necessarily routinely done, so hopefully we can help (the jails) in seeing the value so that they can know what type of population they have at the jails and know if a woman is pregnant who is at their facility,” said Dallaire.

The women who test positive for pregnancy – as well as those who already knew they were pregnant when they arrived at jail -- will be given the opportunity to further participate in the program.

Participants will receive nutritional counseling and pre-natal vitamins. In addition, the program will connect participants to resources specifically suited to their needs, such as domestic violence or substance abuse assistance.

“There are already a lot of good programs already in place from the Virginia Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Social Services, so it’s really just a matter of getting them connected to the right people,” said Dallaire.

The program also plans to hire a registered nurse to do home visits to help prepare the environment there for the arrival of the baby.

“My dream is to have this project continue for a number of years,” said Dallaire. “We have initial funding for two years, which will bring us to the birth of the children, but I’m really hoping we can get additional funding to carry on for at least the first five years of the children’s lives to give them what they need to get off to a fairly healthy start.”

Dallaire said that she hopes the program will result in positive outcomes for both the mothers and their babies.

“We’re hoping to have longer gestational periods and healthier birth weights – those are good ways to start out,” she said.

In addition, she hopes that the early detection of the pregnancies and support the mothers receive will result in more sensitive, responsive caregiving, said Dallaire.

“I can’t say that it will, but of course that’s the hope, that she’s feeling more bonded and committed to this pregnancy,” she said. “All of those things can be helpful in establishing synchronous, positive mother-child interactions and hopefully a stable healthy home environment.”

Dallaire -- herself a mother of two, including a new baby -- has done research on children of incarcerated parents for more than 10 years. She said that she has been amazed at the amount of resilience that she has seen in the children.

“To see how well they’re doing is amazing to me, but I think how much better off they could be if maybe service started early,” she said.

Dallaire, who noted that being able to do this program is a “dream come true,” said that she hopes the mothers will make better life choices as a result of the program’s intervention, breaking the cycle of them returning to jail.

“Incarcerated women face a variety of risks to achieving healthy birth and child development outcomes,” said Dallaire. “We believe this intervention can be one piece to providing essential support for mothers and the children."