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Rebuilding Families, Reclaiming Lives

  • Patricia Allard
  • Lynn Lu
Published: August 2, 2006

The impulse to simply write off famil­ies with parents in prison and chil­dren in foster care is strong. After all, both the crim­inal justice and child welfare systems are systems of last resort—­places where people and kids end up when some­thing in their lives or famil­ies has gone terribly wrong. As instinct­ive as this impulse may be, it is flawed. Where the state has inter­vened in a family in such power­ful ways, both by inca­pa­cit­at­ing a parent and remov­ing a child from his or her home, the state also has an oblig­a­tion and an oppor­tun­ity to help the family over­come its chal­lenges.

Accord­ing to the Adop­tion and Foster Care Analysis and Report­ing System (“AFCARS”), admin­istered by the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Human Services, of the chil­dren in foster care at the end of fiscal year 2003, over 29,000, or 6%, had been removed because of parental incar­cer­a­tion. The major­ity of parents in state prison arecon­victed of non-viol­ent offenses, includ­ing drug offenses. As a grow­ing number of famil­ies suffer the consequences of parental incar­cer­a­tion, states need federal guid­ance and support in order to help famil­ies reunify.

Federal child welfare law requires states to make “reas­on­able efforts” to reunify famil­ies, includ­ing many famil­ies with incar­cer­ated parents. At the same time, the Adop­tion and Safe Famil­ies Act of 1997 (“ASFA”) limits efforts to reunify famil­ies and the time chil­dren may spend in foster care before their famil­ies are dissolved forever. All chil­dren who have a parent in prison, even chil­dren in private substi­tute care, face great chal­lenges to preserving a connec­tion with their parents. Chil­dren in foster care who have an imprisoned parent encounter addi­tional hurdles to main­tain­ing a rela­tion­ship with their parents— obstacles that cannot be over­come without assist­ance from the child welfar­eau­thor­it­ies that have taken over their care.

Main­tain­ing familial bonds between parents and chil­dren despite separ­a­tion due to parental incar­cer­a­tion is essen­tial to all chil­dren’s emotional well-being. The preser­va­tion of bonds between a child and an incar­cer­ated parent—whether through prison visits or regu­lar commu­nic­a­tion by phone, video, or audi­o­tape—may reduce the negat­ive effects on chil­dren of the parent’s sudden phys­ical absence. Preserving rela­tion­ships is not only import­ant for chil­dren of incar­cer­ated parents, it also has posit­ive effects on parents’ rehab­il­it­a­tion. Correc­tions agen­cies have long recog­nized that strong parent-child rela­tion­ships during parental incar­cer­a­tion further import­ant peno­lo­gical goals.

In light of the unique barri­ers to reuni­fic­a­tion that famil­ies with incar­cer­ated parents face, “reas­on­able” reuni­fic­a­tion efforts must include not only services tailored to the phys­ical and emotional needs of parents and chil­dren separ­ated by prison walls, but also a reas­on­able time period in which to draw mean­ing­ful and last­ing bene­fits from such services both during and after parental incar­cer­a­tion. A few states have taken affirm­at­ive steps to alle­vi­ate the harsh consequences of parental incar­cer­a­tion on chil­dren by specify­ing efforts agen­cies must make to facil­it­ate reuni­fic­a­tion. However, most state agen­cies—and the courts that over­see them —lack clear guid­ance in how to imple­ment or eval­u­ate reas­on­able reuni­fic­a­tion efforts for famil­ies with incar­cer­ated parents. As a result, a patch­work of “reas­on­able efforts” stand­ards for incar­cer­ated parents and their chil­dren exists among the states, with many states making no effort to address the unique needs created by a parent’s incar­cer­a­tion. State child welfare agen­cies and correc­tions depart­ments need strong federal guid­ance on how to meet the needs of chil­dren in foster care and their incar­cer­ated parents. Without this guid­ance, states will not meet their oblig­a­tion to rebuild famil­ies and reclaim lives.