Over the past few decades, the number of imprisoned parents in the U.S. has skyrocketed. From 1991 to 2007, it jumped by more than 357,000. Today, more than half of the 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails are parents of minor children. Between 2006 and 2016, tens of thousands of children were placed into foster care solely because a parent was incarcerated. For about 5,000 of these children, their parent’s rights were eventually terminated. No significant racial disparities were found in the relative rates at which these parents’ rights are terminated. But given that African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated — 1 in 10 black children have a parent behind bars, compared with about 1 in 60 white youth — this phenomenon impacts them in outsized numbers.
Mothers and fathers who have a child placed in foster care because they are incarcerated — but who have not been accused of child abuse, neglect, endangerment, or even drug or alcohol use — are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than those who physically or sexually assault their kids.
When a someone goes to prison, nearly 65 percent of families are suddenly unable to pay for basic needs such as food and housing, the report found. About 70 percent of those families are caring for children under the age of 18. Women like Smith are often responsible for court-related costs associated with the conviction, and many families go into debt to pay those fees, leaving even less for food and shelter. When that family member gets out of jail, their loved ones are left with the task of supporting their reentry. This burden is ongoing since people with a criminal record often are unable to find work upon their release.
“Poverty, in particular, perpetuates the cycle of incarceration, while incarceration itself leads to greater poverty,” according to “Who pays? The True cost of Incarceration on Families (Ella Baker Center for Human Rights).
In about 1 in 8 of these cases, incarcerated parents lose their parental rights, regardless of the seriousness of their offenses, according to the analysis of records maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 2006 and 2016. That rate has held steady over time. Female prisoners, whose children are five times more likely than those of male inmates to end up in foster care, have their rights taken away most often.
Since 2010, a handful of states including New York, Washington and Illinois have passed legislation to help mothers and fathers in prison keep their children. And in the coming months, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) plans to introduce in Congress an “incarcerated parents’ bill of rights,” which she said in an interview would make sure that most imprisoned parents who maintain a role in their kids’ lives do not have their rights terminated.