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.