Parents in Prison, Kids in Foster Care

December 7, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

As Washington Post articles go, this isn’t bad (Washington Post, 12/3/18).  It raises a real issue – the parental rights of incarcerated parents – and provides readers valuable information.  But of course, this being the Post, it also ignores vast swaths of the issue in order to maintain intact its preconceived notions about parents and those of much of its readership.

Its gist is that state child welfare officials too readily take children into foster care and move to terminate their parents’ rights based solely on the fact that the latter have committed a crime and been imprisoned.

According to the Marshall Project analysis, at least 32,000 incarcerated parents since 2006 had their children permanently taken from them without being accused of physical or sexual abuse, though other factors, often related to their poverty, may have been involved. Of those, nearly 5,000 appear to have lost their parental rights because of their imprisonment alone.

Now, what the article doesn’t go into is that, in the 11 years from 2006 to 2017, that’s about 2,900 kids per year placed into foster care, i.e. a tiny percentage of the whole.  (About 680,000 complaints of child abuse or neglect are deemed founded by CPS agencies each year.)  It also doesn’t mention that, while those parents may not have been “accused of physical or sexual abuse,” neglect is another reason for taking kids into care.  Indeed, about 70% of kids taken by child welfare agencies have been neglected, not abused.  So, just because there was no abuse involved, the quoted figures don’t mean the children were taken for no reason.

Further, the article makes no effort to distinguish between parents serving one-year sentences and those serving 30-year sentences.  That’s a pretty big omission.  After all, a child can spend a year with grandma and grandpa, go to see Mommy in prison occasionally and be reunited with her when she gets out without too much harm being done.  But a child with no alternative parent or blood relative and whose primary caregiver is facing a long stretch in prison realistically needs foster care and adoption.  Permanence and stability are generally good for kids and no child should be held hostage when Mommy or Daddy are truly not coming back for most or all of their childhood.

Still, according to the article and to the Marshall Project, it’s not unusual for a parent facing a relatively short stint behind bars to lose his/her parental rights.  If true, that’s an issue in need of resolution.  As with so much about families, courts and family laws fail to adequately protect the biological family.  We far, far too readily separate children from their parents despite our knowledge that the biological parents are, on average, the best caregivers for children and their home the best place for kids to grow up.

In about 1 in 8 of these cases, incarcerated parents lose their parental rights, regardless of the seriousness of their offenses, according to the analysis of records maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 2006 and 2016. That rate has held steady over time.

Those quoted by the article who support the current practice need a lesson in the facts about adoption.

To some adoption proponents, immediately finding children a nurturing home should always be the priority. Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School, said that while some parents turn their lives around when they leave prison, their children should not have to wait for a family.

“You never know if they’ll just go right back to a life of crime,” she said, “and kids deserve better than that.”

That’s fine in theory, but not in fact.  The fact is that we complete about 125,000 adoptions in the U.S. each year, but most of those – about 75,000 – are stepparent adoptions.  Only about 50,000 are “stranger” adoptions, i.e. those in which the child is basically unknown to the parents prior to the adoption.  With 425,000 kids in foster care whose parents are either dead or have had their rights terminated, the adoption system can’t find parents for the overwhelming majority of children who need them.  Any unnecessary addition to the number of kids needing homes only makes a bad situation worse.  So every public policy on adoption must take into consideration the paucity of adoptive parents.

To its credit, the article takes to task the Adoption and Safe Families Act that, as I’ve written before, is largely responsible for the tendency on the part of state child welfare agencies to err on the side of taking kids from their parents.

In 1997, with first lady Hillary Clinton’s vocal support, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which mandated that federally funded state child-welfare programs begin termination of parental rights in most cases in which children had been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. The measure’s supporters hoped it would pave the way to adoption for kids who had been languishing in temporary, often unstable homes while their biological parents tried to kick a drug habit or find housing.

The legislation also created bonuses for states that facilitate adoptions. Since 1998, the federal government has doled out more than $639 million in these rewards.

But the law’s largely unintended consequence was to make incarcerated parents, who now spend well more than 15 months on average behind bars because of the tough prison sentences of the same era, more vulnerable to losing their children.

And it gets right the most basic of all concepts about family policy.

Amanda Alexander, executive director of the Detroit Justice Center and a senior research scholar at the University of Michigan Law School, sees the dichotomy between what’s best for parents and what’s best for kids as a false one. The child-welfare system, she said, certainly must find young people a stable home. But it should also help their mothers and fathers stay in their lives in a productive way, along with siblings and other relatives.

“In most cases, kids are better off by all kinds of metrics when they have a relationship with their birth families,” she said.

That’s a message that every judge, lawmaker, CPS employee, mental health expert, etc. should be required to know by heart.  Public policy designed to break up families is bad public policy. 

But that’s the one we have.

More on this next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *