The prison system and the child welfare system both have the power to split families apart, and too often, they are tragically linked when the state imposes its judgment that a parent is no longer worthy of her child. For the majority of men and women in New York’s prisons, their fate as parents hinges on a legal timetable that pushes their children toward adoption. This week, Albany finally enacted reform legislation that gives incarcerated parents a greater chance to prove that they can hold their families together, even from behind bars. The federal Adoption and Safe Families Act aims to keep children from languishing in foster care by obligating child welfare agencies to seek a "permanent" placement for children in the system. This means that in many cases (with some limited flexibility for special circumstances), if a child has been in the system for 15 of the past 22 months, the agency will seek to terminate mom or dad’s parental rights. For parents who are serving time, no matter how caring or diligent, incarceration would make it virtually impossible to beat that clock, and the mere fact of a prison sentence rendered the child, in the eyes of the law, effectively abandoned. At the same time, the fact that many kids remain stuck in foster care even after legal separation from their parents shows that the law does not provide the permanence and stability it promised. In poor communities of color, where both child welfare and criminal justice authorities are seen as constant threats, perpetuating the systematic removal of parents and children from their neighborhoods and family networks. Advocates for women in prison have for years pushed Albany to carve out an exception in the ASFA rules to protect incarcerated parents from having their children arbitrarily torn from them. They finally scored a victory with the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act Expanded Discretion bill. The law gives agencies more flexibility to maintain children’s ties to an incarcerated parent, with the hope of reunification after release. According to the Coalition for Women in Prison, to allow for an exception to the ASFA timetable:
agencies must document evidence that the parent plays a meaningful role in the child’s life and that maintaining the parent-child relationship is in the child’s best interest. By amending New York’s child welfare laws to reflect the special circumstances of criminal justice-involved families, [the legislation] gives incarcerated parents and their children a more fair opportunity to work toward reunification and safe permanency options that do not involve severing family bonds forever.
Although statistics on parents in prison are sketchy, the Coalition estimates that between 7 and 14 percent of foster care children have a parent in prison or jail in New York, and nearly three in four incarcerated women are mothers–meaning that thousands of kids and parents could be impacted by the reform. In the long struggle for equity for imprisoned parents, bending the ASFA rules to give families a break is a small milestone: it helps shift the paradigm through which the government and communities see people in prison. They’re no longer isolated convicts, but family members, caregivers and loving parents. Rather than doubly punishing them by taking away their children in addition to their freedom, New York may lead the country in recognizing their humanity. For families swept up in the prison system, the best "permanent placement" may be the one they’ve had all along, with the estranged parent who, in a child’s mind, never really left. Image: Mothers of Bedford