By Rachel Roth
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Rigid foster care rules threaten to dissolve family ties when mothers are in prison or residential drug treatment. A new law in New York State takes steps to help these families weather the separation.
Because foster care agencies have not always provided the reunification services that parents in prison are supposed to receive, the new law requires such agencies to give parents information about their rights and responsibilities, as well as referrals to services available to help maintain relationships with their children. (This provision warrants monitoring, as it is not clear how providing referrals would work when parents cannot access services without the assistance of prison or treatment center employees.)
By allowing for greater flexibility in the foster care system, New York joins a small group of states that have adjusted their laws, including Nebraska, New Mexico, Colorado and California. But in most of the country, parental rights remain in serious jeopardy.
Most women in prison are mothers, and they are five times as likely as imprisoned fathers to have children in foster care. (When a father goes to prison, the children are most likely to live with their mother; when a mother is in prison, the children are most likely to live with a grandparent, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports.)
ASFA therefore has a disproportionate impact on mothers in prison. Given the overrepresentation of poor women and women of color in prison--and the overrepresentation of poor children and children of color, particularly African American children, in foster care--it takes a heavy toll on already disadvantaged families and communities.
Earlier this year, the American Bar Association adopted new standards for the treatment of people in prison, including a provision saying they should be informed of the consequences for their parental rights of any arrangements contemplated for the care of a child. If put into practice, this standard would ensure that women are aware of the particular timeframes and risks inherent in each state's foster care system.
One of the barriers to changing the 1997 adoption law is the lack of data. In many cases, government agencies simply do not know how many children are in foster care because their parents are in prison, nor how many parents' rights have been terminated for this reason. Where something as fundamental as the parent-child relationship is at stake, governments need to provide a fuller accounting of how public policies affect the families who are subject to them.
Activists in other states can learn from the New York experience, which involved a sustained commitment by advocates and policymakers who believe that protecting family bonds is an issue of fundamental fairness.
Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, says it took four years to get a bill through the legislature and onto the governor's desk. Before that came three years of research and consultations with stakeholders, including affected parents and children.
A critical part of the organizing strategy was to highlight the perspectives of women directly affected by the law.
Formerly incarcerated mothers met with legislators and spoke out at public events. Those still in prison wrote letters, which the Coalition for Women Prisoners collected and turned into a book, along with letters from children of imprisoned mothers.
One contributor to the book describes the pain of losing her children: "As the clock ticked away, I remained in constant fear wondering which monthly visit would be our last . . . I was told that if I agreed to a conditional surrender agreement then I would be allowed limited communication (cards, letters and photos) with my sons. Sadly, these stipulations were never honored . . . I love my sons! I want what I was promised, when I acted in good faith, and signed my agreement!"
Implementation of the new law should spare other families this fate.
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Rachel Roth writes about reproductive politics and the impact of imprisonment on women's rights and health. She is the author of the book "Making Women Pay: The Hidden Costs of Fetal Rights."
The Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York:
"Rebuilding Families, Reclaiming Lives: State Obligations to Children in Foster Care and their Incarcerated Parents," by Patricia Allard and Lynn Lu:
"A Tangle of Problems Link Prison, Foster Care," by Michelle Chen:
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