Representatives from more than 40 community agencies gathered at William & Mary on Monday to discuss the best practices for supporting pregnant, incarcerated women.
The forum was hosted by the W&M Healthy Beginnings Project, which is led by Psychology Professors Danielle Dallaire and Catherine Forestell. Funded by a Kellogg Foundation grant, the project partners with local jails to provide nutritional support and counseling to incarcerated mothers-to-be.
“One of the most important roles for universities in the United States is to help the country engage the serious social issues confronting it. It’s a crucially important role,” said William & Mary President Taylor Reveley as he opened to forum.
“And for professors and students in our universities, this entails, in my view, more than simply sitting in the proverbial Ivy Tower and thinking great theoretical thoughts … Advances in theory are crucially important to human progress, but a lot more is needed. It’s also important for professors and students to get out in the real world and to see what’s actually going on, what’s actually happening, and then, so informed, work with other people in the community to find ways to meet pressing social needs.”
Dallaire, the principal investigator for Healthy Beginnings, was the first of several speakers to present their work throughout the day. She spoke about national recommendations for the care of pregnant women who are incarcerated, and she also talked about Healthy Beginnings, which provides pregnancy tests, prenatal vitamins, nutritional counseling and other support. Since its inception in 2012, the project has touched the lives of more than 70 women and resulted in higher birth weights, an increase in nutritional knowledge and a decrease in depression among participants.
Other speakers at the forum included the medical director of Human Resources, Inc. and representatives from Henrico County Jail, Riverside Regional Jail and Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
“The collective wisdom in this room is amazing,” said Dallaire.
Forestell, the co-principal investigator of Healthy Beginnings, introduced each session with an anecdote about one of the women who participated in Healthy Beginnings.
For instance, in introducing a session on nutrition, Forestell told the forum attendees about a woman who weighed about 350 pounds at the beginning of her pregnancy and who mostly ate high-calorie foods bought from the jail’s canteen. As a result, she gained a total of 60 pounds and suffered from multiple complications.
“We see pregnancy as an opportunity for change,” Forestell said. “Nutrition is one important aspect of these women’s lives that they can control at this point while they are incarcerated. Based on our overview of the food menus at each of the facilities that we work with, we can tell you that these women are provided with balanced meals … However, the reality is that each inmate makes the final decision about what she’s going to consume. Poor decisions about what to eat can have dire consequences for both her and her growing fetus.”
Other topics covered during the forum included local practices for supporting pregnant women, methadone maintenance therapy and reentry resources. However, those topics were just some of the things discussed at the forum, as representatives from jails, prisons, health agencies and other organizations shared their knowledge and worked together to solve problems. Some of the other topics discussed during the event included fathers’ rights, mother-child visitation policies and breastfeeding support.
The information discussed at the forum will be used to make a submission on best practices for pregnant, incarcerated women to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Guideline Clearinghouse.
“I couldn't be more pleased with how things went today, from start to finish,” said Dallaire. “The dialogue and conversations we had today help push us towards a better delivery of care to this population.”
Forestell, the co-principal investigator of Healthy Beginnings, agreed.
“As Danielle said, it was a huge success, providing a rare opportunity for people from correctional facilities to share ideas with each other and those from a wide range of community agencies,” Forestell said. “We hope that the conversations that were initiated today will continue with the goal of improving birth outcomes for pregnant women incarcerated in our jails.”