Several hundred children entering foster care each year have mothers who are, or will be, in jail, but they have not been studied, until a recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice. “To our knowledge this is the first report ever done that looked at biological mothers in the criminal justice system who had children in foster care,” says Tim Ross, Vera's researcher director. In many ways, he says, the report, which is the result of a request from the Administration for Child Services, is good news. “When we began we were concerned that quality-of-life policing, resulting in even short jail terms, might be pushing children into foster care. But it’s not the case that the incarceration of mothers is resulting in a child’s placement. That happens rarely. We were also surprised at how relatively small the numbers are, and that most of the incarceration is jail, not prison, which is a huge distinction.” The periods of incarceration, Ross says, tend to happen after the child has been placed, not before, and they are heavily related to drug use or its corollaries, prostitution and petty theft.
Women In Prison
Working with city and state agencies, the researchers matched child welfare and criminal justice records to find nearly 15,000 mothers whose children were or had been in foster care. More than a third of the mothers had been arrested and convicted at least once in their lives. Those arrests were primarily for misdemeanors. Only a handful involved violent felonies, and even fewer involved child victims. About 20 percent of these mothers had been incarcerated at least once. About 10 percent had children in foster care during the time they were behind bars, and most of those imprisonments had occurred in the year after the child was placed.
“There is such a lack of data that we don’t know how many incarcerated women have children, how many of those children are in foster care, how many inmates have a family court matter,” says Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project. “The State Department of Correctional Services doesn’t track this information. We need more reports like this, and on a broader scale.”
The number of women in prison nationwide has increased more than 500 percent since 1977, more than double that of men. Of the more than a million women in the criminal justice system across the country, (about one percent of the U.S. female population), New York has the fourth highest female prison population, behind Texas, California and Florida. Most women inmates are mothers, and while men can of course be fathers, most of the women were primary caretakers of their children before they were imprisoned.
Catch-22 For Incarcerated Mothers
The Adoption and Safe Family Act provides a way for authorities to terminate the parental rights of an incarcerated parent who does not have contact with his or her child for six months, or whose child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. The average minimum sentence for a woman in a New York State prison is 58 months. The vagaries of the prison system â€“ people being moved without warning (for security reasons), difficulty corresponding â€“ makes regular communication and visits extremely difficult, which puts incarcerated women at significant risk of losing their kids.
The state houses more than 40 percent of its women inmates in Albion, which is 400 miles and nine hours away from New York City, where most of the women come from and where most of their children live. “If a child welfare worker can document a reason for her not to lose the kids, she won’t,” says Kraft-Stolar. “But many times the worker only has a piece of paper in front of him. And foster care agencies don’t take collect calls, which is the only way someone who is incarcerated can make a phone call.”
These are not violent criminals; 80 percent of women who entered New York State prisons in 2000 were convicted of non-violent drug or property offenses and 45 percent have been incarcerated for drug offenses specifically as a result of the punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws(in pdf format). The vast majority of the state’s more than 2,900 women prisoners are survivors of physical, sexual and/or psychological abuse. Most are African-American or Latina; most come from a handful of neighborhoods in New York City; most have prior drug and alcohol problems.
Advocates for incarcerated women promote preventative services. It’s long been known that drug treatment reduces drug-related crime far more than mandatory minimum sentences; a 1997 Rand study says 15 times more. It costs about $32,000 annually to confine an inmate in New York state prison, and twice that to keep one in a New York City jail. In comparison, the cost of most drugfree outpatient care ranges between $2,700 and $4,500 per person per year; even residential drug treatment programs, which can cost as much as $21,000 annually, are cheaper than locking someone up.
Effect On Children
These children being separated from their primary caretaker are often placed in foster care or kinship care, which leads to what Kraft-Stolar calls “collateral consequences.” It’s very hard for them to stay focused in school, she says. “They can’t relate to classmates, they often feel isolated and have emotional problems.” But incarceration of a mother can create complications for the child welfare agency’s family reunification policies. Although keeping the family intact is a strong predictor of the mother not returning to prison -- and the child ending up there later -- arranging and supervising visits takes time and resources, and it means the child welfare agency and the correctional institution have to cooperate.
To that end, the Administration for Child Services has been “impressively responsive,” Ross says. They commissioned the report when they began realizing from their own experience that this was an important issue. And around the same time, in 2000, they started the respected Children of Incarcerated Parents program at Rikers Island . Among other things it arranges nearly 800 parent-child visits each year, including weekly visits to Rikers Island and at least monthly visits to other city, state and federal correctional facilities. “It’s a terrific model but it needs to be expanded,” says Kraft-Stolar, noting that the program needs more resources. “The staff is overworked and underpaid and there are not enough people to provide services to visiting kids. And the problem just increases on the state level.”
The Administration for Child Services is also working toward collecting information on parents’ incarceration at various stages of a family’s child welfare case, says spokeswoman Maclean Guthrie. “While most child welfare systems do not comprehensively track this data, ACS is currently exploring the feasibility of building a database that would collect information on incarcerated parents who have children in foster care.”