Abiding family bonds are the strongest predictor there is of successful prisoner reentry. For children, sustained attachments form the building blocks for successful development. But changes in child welfare law— specifically, accelerated timetables for termination of parental rights— have increased the odds that even a relatively short sentence will lead to the permanent severance of family bonds. When this happens, children are forced to forfeit the most fundamental right of all—the right to remain part of their families.

“Now I’m getting my mama back.”

As a child, Mark, 18, cared for his younger siblings while his mother was in and out of jail. Later, he entered foster care and she went to prison. At the time of this interview, he was about to emancipate from a group home and was planning to attend college


When I was about eight, my mom started smoking crack and leaving me home late at night. Then she’d go to jail and wouldn’t nobody know I’d be at home watching my brothers and sisters the whole time.


When I was about nine, we were home alone and my little brother busted his head on a piece of wood. I had to call 911, and that’s when Child Protective Services started coming in. After that, we didn’t see my mom.


My mom’d start calling the house crying. She’d be in jail. She’d say she’s sorry, won’t do it again. She’d get out. Do the same thing. It got to the point where my mom was going to the penitentiary like that’s all she knew. But she couldn’t explain it to us—that she had a problem.


Appellate cases involving termination of prisoners’ parental rights have gone up 250% since 1997.

I got to the point where I hated my mom, but that was before I understood what she was going through. See, she was lost. When we were with my mom, she knew she couldn’t pay the bills. She knew she couldn’t feed us right. She was stressin’, and the only way she could hide it was go smoke some crack. Steal something to get more crack. When we were separated, it made it worse


One time, when I had just gotten out of juvenile hall, my mom brought me something for my birthday. I knew she was my mom, but the only time I’d felt loved was around the time when I was little—four, five, six. Now I got that little kid feeling again.


She started coming around and taking us out. Then she got locked up again. That’s when I finally understood—she needs help. ‘Cause she tried to be a mom. She just needed help.


Later on, when I was 16, we were both at my grandma’s, just visiting. I told her, “You’re disturbed. You need help.


”She burst out crying. Then the next day she sat down and told me she’s going to fix herself. The next time I talked to her, she was doing good. She put herself in rehab and got her a sponsor, and they’ve been helping her. Today, she works at the church. She’s got her own two-bedroom. And she’s clean, about two years.


The average term being served by parents in state prison is 80 months.

What made it happen is love from me and my family. That little piece that’s lost—it’s filled the gap there. At first I used to think my mom would be dead, but now I know she’s going to see my kids. I know she’ll see me graduate from high school, see me go to college.


I used to pray at night for a new mommy and daddy. I’d see people in magazines and go, “Oh, I wish she was my mama.” And now I’m getting my mama back.


  • Re-examine the Adoption and Safe Families Act. 
    Under the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), states must begin proceedings to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months—six months if the child is under three. Dependency cases involving children whose parents are incarcerated should be looked at on an individual basis, and viable families preserved, whether or not sentences exceed the ASFA timelines. ASFA should be revised to allow for such flexibility. State statute in Nebraska prohibits filing a termination proceeding “if the sole factual basis for the (termination) petition is that…the parent or parents of the juvenile are incarcerated.” This statute could provide a model for federal legislation revising ASFA. Unless and until that happens, better use should be made of what flexibility the law already allows. Under ASFA, exceptions to the timelines for termination are permissible under two circumstances: when a court determines that “reasonable efforts” have not been made to support reunification, or that termination is not in a child’s best interest. Given the minimal efforts that are generally made to maintain contact and plan for reunification between incarcerated parents and their children—and the obstacles even the most energetic social workers face when they do try to support reunification—terminations in cases involving an incarcerated parent ought to receive automatic scrutiny under the “reasonable efforts” clause. When children enter foster care simply because of parental arrest, rather than evidence of abuse or neglect, these cases deserve careful consideration under the “best interests” clause. 

    At the same time, arrested parents whose children are in, or may enter, foster care should receive complete information about ASFA prior to any plea bargain that could lead to a sentence long enough to trigger the ASFA timelines.


  • Designate a family services coordinator at prisons and jails.
    Incarcerated parents often have a hard time arranging visits from behind bars and fulfilling the multiple mandates required for reunification. Investing in a staff member whose job it is to facilitate contact and support reunification could result in reduced recidivism and significant child welfare savings.


  • Support incarcerated parents upon reentry.
    The most basic tasks of parenting—providing food, shelter, and clothing—are made immensely more difficult by a criminal record. Beyond the challenges of finding work and re-establishing oneself after a forced absence, federal laws passed as part of welfare reform bar those with felony drug convictions from receiving public assistance. Removing felony restrictions on employment, housing, TANF and food stamps is crucial to giving struggling families a chance to rebuild.

    Prison and jail family services coordinators could also develop pre-release plans for parents, and refer them to community agencies that might assist them in securing housing and employment. Probation and parole departments could establish family service units dedicated to serving clients who are working to re-establish themselves as parents.


  • Focus on rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration.
    The most valuable intervention on behalf of children could take place before a parent ever saw a jail cell. Diversion programs, treatment for drug addiction, and other rehabilitation-focused alternatives to incarceration could make a tremendous difference to children.



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