Wanda Chambers came to understand motherhood in an unlikely setting: the solitude of a maximum-security prison.
Chambers, now 41, had struggled with addiction for years; she had tried treatment but couldn't stop using. Her crisis bottomed out in 1998, when child welfare authorities took her infant daughter, Princess, and placed her in the home of a foster parent. Soon afterward, Chambers was incarcerated on a drug conviction.
At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, "I was locked up long enough to really strengthen my mind and change my way of thinking," she recalled. When she got out about three years later, she was determined to prove to the government she deserved to have her daughter back. She went through 18 months of court-supervised drug treatment and parenting skills programs before finally regaining custody.
The experience continues to shape her family. She works as an advocate for parents dealing with child welfare. Meanwhile, Princess' former foster mother remains involved, helping care for the child as a co-parent.
For Chambers, prison and foster care brought regret and revelation. "It was definitely a learning experience," she said. "You lose everything, and you break family ties. And I always wanted to get it right, but I just didn't know how."
In New York City's social service structure, two major institutions wield the power to separate families in the name of safety. With the aim of protecting society as a whole, criminal justice agencies sweep up parents through courts and prisons, while the Administration for Children's Services, charged with safeguarding individual children from harm, routinely removes young people from troubled homes. Though driven by different goals, the two systems interact in many families. Critics warn that both types of intervention may further deepen patterns of emotional and social trauma for children and parents.
Interlocking Systems, Interlocking Problems
There are no comprehensive statistics on families involved with both the child welfare and criminal justice systems in New York City. According to New York State's Department of Correctional Services, the majority of inmates report having at least one child. The Correctional Association, a New York-based advocacy group, estimates that statewide, more than 10,000 children had a mother imprisoned in New York prisons or jails. National data indicate that most mothers in state prisons lived with their children before their current sentence. Of mothers in state prisons with children under 18, about one in ten reported having a child in foster or institutional care; many more had children living with other relatives, though some relatives may also serve as "kinship" foster caregivers.
But national child welfare data reveal more subtle overlaps between the systems. One third of all children reported to local child welfare agencies for being maltreated at home had a primary caregiver who had been arrested at least once. Long-term studies show that families often cycle through social problems that can lead both to losing a child to foster care and to losing a parent to prison: issues such as poverty, substance abuse and mental illness. Demographics underline the connections: people in poor and black communities tend to have heavier involvement with both child-protective services and the criminal justice system.
Reflecting the synergy of environment and family dynamics, most child maltreatment reports are tied not to outright abuse, but "neglect" -- failure to provide sufficient care. A child could become technically neglected if her parent cannot afford adequate food and housing, or is consumed by addiction.
Although a parent's encounter with law enforcement also will not necessarily cause her to lose custody, Children's Services may intervene on an emergency basis if an arrest leaves the child unattended. Reform advocates say these placements can lead to prolonged separation as families wade through the child welfare bureaucracy.
"Over a child's lifetime, mothers and fathers may be arrested multiple times, intermittently use drugs, or have other problems that affect the child's home," said Susan Phillips, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "People not only progress through the criminal justice system; they loop through it."
The same crises make the home more vulnerable to child welfare intervention. Whether one system is a cause or an effect of the other may be impossible to discern, but both can pull children into a spiral of instability.
The Loss of a Child
Cathy Faust barely had a chance to be a mother before Childen's Services decided she was an unfit parent. A survivor of child abuse, she struggled with depression and drugs throughout her youth, right up to the birth of her daughter Jimeaka in 1990. After charging her with neglect, she recalled, Children's Services pressured her to turn her baby over to the care of her sister-in-law.
Without access to legal help or support services, Faust said, she went along with the plan, but three years later, her sister-in-law moved to adopt Jimeaka and terminate Faust's parental rights.
Though Faust maintained some contact with her daughter over the next few years, losing custody stoked her emotional volatility. "I just felt worthless and hopeless," she said. "It was like I was [the] worst person in the world. So it just made me indulge in drugs more, because I'm feeling less than a woman because I can't even be a mother to my child."
Faust was arrested on drug-related charges in 1998. When she met her daughter again after her release from prison six years later, the legal separation had grown into a permanent distance, and they remain estranged.
Faust, now 47, holds down a job at a social service organization and receives regular therapy. But while her life has become more stable, she said, it is not whole.
"That's my only child," she said. "And it's like, OK, my life is together, but it's not together, because that's a piece that's missing. And so much damage that has been done-not just for me, but for her also, for the family."
Recent reform efforts in both child welfare and criminal justice have emphasized preventing mistreatment or neglect and preserving family bonds. Some alternative sentencing programs can route parents into drug treatment rather than prison. Children's Services has stepped up social support services to help children in distressed homes remain with their parents. But advocates say both systems still fail the city's most vulnerable families.
To regain custody of a child in foster care, a birth parent must demonstrate her willingness and ability to care for the child by meeting an array of legal obligations, such as a mandated "service plan" that could include parenting classes or drug treatment, along with periodic review by family court. But Sarah From, director of public policy with the Women's Prison Association, said complying with this can be nearly impossible for a parent behind bars. "The onus is very much on the woman to manage this process of keeping her family together, while she's under the very hard and stressful situation of incarceration," From said.
Children's Services, which must facilitate visits with birth parents, has helped ease the strain of separation with its Children of Incarcerated Parents Program, which provides foster care children with transportation to correctional facilities across the state. In recent years, some prisons have become more accommodating as well. Parenting centers at Rikers and Bedford Hills, for example, allow family visits in a more open, "child-friendly" setting.
Yet, according to the Correctional Association, problems persist at other facilities, including cumbersome security clearance procedures, a lack of social support services for parent-child interaction, and difficulties coordinating visits with child welfare and corrections personnel.
As an advocate, Chambers said she sees many incarcerated parents set back by unresponsive case managers, who are overworked, out of reach or just insensitive to the challenges of incarceration. "I feel like, when a parent is locked up, out of sight, out of mind," she said.
Unlike a criminal trial, the family court process centers on assessing a child's well-being, rather than judging evidence of alleged criminal activity. The judge and the city tend to take a preventive approach, focused on broad risks to family safety -- from a lack of medical care to domestic violence.
Shortages of money and staff complicate the legal landscape. Despite recent efforts to make the process more efficient, parent advocates say the system still lacks the personnel and funding it needs to conduct adequate investigations or provide competent counsel.
The hurdles facing imprisoned parents grew higher in the late 1990s with the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act. If a child has spent 15 of the previous 22 months in foster care, the law requires that child welfare authorities file for termination of the birth parent's rights. The aim is to set a time period so the child can find "permanency" instead of foster care -- generally, either reunification with the birth parent or adoption by another family.
Though child welfare agencies can make limited exceptions to the timetable based on family circumstances, the law has tightened pressure on parents to defend their custodial rights. Meanwhile, state policies make no specific exemptions for incarcerated parents, whose sentences typically exceed the time line. According to research led by Columbia University law professor Philip Genty, in the years following the act's passage -- 1997 to 2002 -- termination proceedings for incarcerated parents more than doubled.
Criminal justice reform groups have pushed for state legislation to make the foster care timeframe more flexible for incarcerated parents.
The law's aim of promoting stability has backfired, Genty said. "There's no unified, enlightened policy going on," he said. "The correctional system is making its decisions for its own reasons, the foster care system is making its decisions for its own reasons, and nobody's really keeping track of whether that creates inherent tensions."
Prison as the Final Chance
After returning to their communities, many formerly incarcerated women say prison was the necessary "break" that compelled them to change their lives. But to activists, that attests not so much to the positive aspects of incarceration as to a lack of alternatives. Reform advocates argue that neither locking up parents nor removing children from their homes can substitute for community-based programs that intervene to keep families intact before a crisis hits.
"It's not that the transforming factor or moment had to be prison, per se," said Tanya Krupat, a program director at the Osborne Association, a criminal justice-focused service and advocacy organization. "But it was that prison may have been the first time that a woman felt safe, let's say, because she was in a domestic violence relationship, or it's the first time someone could actually detox and think clearly. Then that's a failure of us not having adequate or accessible drug treatment, domestic violence services and other programs."
After Natalie Credell was arrested in 2005 with her boyfriend on drug-related charges, she was placed on bail and ordered into a residential rehabilitation program, designed to house her and her infant son, Nasir, while she got treatment. But Credell, 31, found the program stressful and stifling. After clashing with the counselors, she dropped out and relapsed. She ended up doing 15 months in a federal prison in Virginia, and Administration for Children's Services placed Nasir in the care of Natalie's father.
Like Chambers, Credell hit a wall in prison. "It just dawned on me that I'm a mom now," she said. "This is not where I want to be. This is not the type of mother that I want to be to my son."
Following her release, Credell found her way to Hour Children, a Queens-based organization for women transitioning from prison that offers job training, childcare, and supportive housing. She regained custody of Nasir in March 2007, and the two now live together at Hour Children while she studies to become a drug-treatment counselor.
Credell traces her crisis farther back than her arrest or even her addiction. She first encountered Children's' Services as a child, she recalled, when her mother's drug use prompted a child welfare investigation. She eventually went to live with her grandmother. But her mother's turbulence had started her on a chaotic trajectory.
"The streets taught her," she said, "and this is what she passed on to me."
Now on the outside, Credell hopes to pass something better onto her son. "A mother is a child's world," she said. "So in order to make things happen for him, I have to make things happen for me."Michelle Chen is a freelance writer and a native New Yorker. This article is part of a series that will explore the connections between the criminal justice and child welfare systems in New York City. The project is supported by a fellowship from the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Last Updated (May 25, 2012)