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Intertwined: Child Welfare and Criminal Justice Systems

The Prison Policy Initiative released a report this week about the tenuous relationship between child protective-service agencies and the criminal-justice system. The system’s harmful effects on children is well-researched; the Prison Policy Initiative’s researchers have published previous reports about the disruptive effects of parental incarceration. The issue has become increasingly pressing because women – often the primary caretakers – are one of the fastest growing populations within prisons, according to the new report, called "Force multipliers: How the criminal legal and child welfare systems cooperate to punish families.


About a dozen states have crafted policies to try and mitigate those effects, by looking at probation instead of incarceration and by providing resources to keep parents and communities together with children in the 70% of child-welfare cases that are strictly about neglect, which is often rooted in poverty. Some prison officials have also implemented working groups and policies to make it easier for parents to be in communication with minor children.


Nearly half of people in prison are parents of minor children. On any given day, 1.25 million children are impacted by parental imprisonment. That doesn’t necessarily end when a parent is released – roughly 1 in 8 incarcerated parents who have a child in foster care will lose their parental rights completely, according to the report. Federal legislation requires that states move to terminate parental rights when a child is out of their parent’s custody for 15 out of 22 consecutive months.


Beyond the initial separation between child and parents, when a parent is arrested/incarcerated, children commonly enter the foster-care system for other related reasons, including when a parent’s record is determined to compromise a child’s safety. Also, relatives who might be considered for next-of-kin placement are determined ineligible because of their record. And lastly, children who first were placed with temporary guardians such as relatives can end up in foster care after having problems with that guardian.


Child-welfare investigations also bring parents and children into the system and are able to hand down what the report, citing a recent news article, describes as “the ultimate punishment,” the termination of legal bonds between parent and child, sometimes for what seem like frivolous grounds, as in the case of a family last year in Tennessee, where the father was arrested during a traffic stop and the mother was released, but their children, including a nursing infant, had been taken into the foster-care system.


Child-welfare oversight may be more aggressive in states with higher incarceration rates, researchers found. “States that spend more on carceral practices have higher rates of child removal than states that spend more on social welfare.”






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