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National Study Faults Federal “Adoption & Safe Families Act” for Consigning Children to Permanent Separation from Parents

September 7, 2006

For Immediate Release
Thursday, September 7, 2006

Contact Information:
Lynn Lu, Brennan Center for Justice
(212) 992–8645
Patricia Allard, Brennan Center for Justice
(212) 998–6740

WASHINGTON, D.C. Child welfare policies are colliding with the increasing incarceration of parents, primarily for low-level drug crimes, to tear families apart according to a policy report released today at a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The report, Rebuilding Families, Reclaiming Lives, faults the federal Adoption & Safe Families Act for unintentionally expediting the permanent separation of children from incarcerated parents. Under the 1997 law, states are required to terminate the parental rights of children who have been foster care for 15 of the last 22 months, subject to limited exceptions.

This report shows a painful unintended consequence of federal law. Far too many children are at risk of being permanently separated from their mothers whose worst crime may be drug addiction, said Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center. Congress should pass the Second Chance Act and give states support in their efforts to keep families together.

The report finds that the median sentence imposed by state courts for non-violent drug offenses is 36 months too long to prevent a child without substitute care from being permanently removed from an incarcerated parents custody under the federal law. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of minor children with an incarcerated mother nearly doubled. Today more then 1.5 million minors have a parent in prison.

Drug offenses are the number one reason for maternal incarceration. Latina and African American women are more likely then any other group of people to be in prison for a non-violent drug offense. As a result black children are more than nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison. The federal child welfare law is sentencing tens of thousands of children to life without a mother, stated Patricia Allard, a lawyer at the Brennan Center and co-author of the study.

The report calls on Congress to relax the timeline for termination of parental rights mandated by the Adoption & Safe Families Act and to consider alternatives like subsidized legal guardianship to keep families together.

The report also urges states to end barriers to family reunification. Most moms in state and federal prisons are held more then 100 miles away from their children. Prisons are often far away from public transportation, and communicating in between visits is often extremely difficult, stated Lynn Lu, a lawyer at the Brennan Center and co-author of the report.

The study calls on states to coordinate between prison and child welfare officials to keep families together. We need to recognize that for now, the prison system and the child welfare system are inextricably linked. States need to do a better job of keeping the bonds strong between children and an incarcerated parent, said Lu.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) joined the Brennan Center in releasing the report. Rep. Jackson Lee is one of 112 sponsors of the Second Chance Act, a bipartisan bill that would help incarcerated individuals re-enter society with adequate support to become productive members of their communities.

Working with the Brennan Center, Rep. Jackson Lee has introduced an amendment to the House version of the Second Chance Act that would mandate the federal government coordinate with states to collect and disseminate information about best practices to maintain the bonds between incarcerated parents and children in foster care.

Corrections officials and child welfare officials need to work together to ensure that we protect the bonds between a child and her mother while shes incarcerated. I am hopeful that this report will strengthen our resolve to act on the Second Chance Act before this Congress adjourns, stated Rep. Jackson Lee.

The Brennan Center study calls on state reunification services to include affordable and accessible telephone communication, child-appropriate visiting rooms in prisons, facilitation of parents participation in case planning for the future of their children, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and opportunities for parental self-improvement.

Some states have taken affirmative steps to address the special needs of families with incarcerated parents and children in foster care, even in the absence of federal guidance. Specifically, the authors singled out California and New York as two states that have policies directly addressing the needs of foster children and their incarcerated parents.

In addition to New York and California, the authors praised Massachusetts for encouraging child welfare agencies to work in cooperation with incarcerated parents to promote a healthy relationship with their children, and to avoid permanent separation. Currently state officials in Hawaii, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington have taken steps to set up Task Forces between corrections and child welfare officials to develop plans to keep families together during and after the incarceration of a parent.

We found that several states recognize the importance of assisting incarcerated parents and their children in preserving their relationships where reunification is a real possibility, and expressly require child welfare agencies to tailor services to the needs of these families, said Allard. The federal government needs to fix the Adoption and Safe Families Act to ensure that all states do the same.