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More Incarcerated Mothers Post-Pandemic, Putting Strain On Kids

The number of incarcerated women in the U.S. dropped by tens of thousands because of COVID-19. As the criminal justice system returns to business as usual and prison populations creep back to pre-pandemic norms, more children are being separated from their mothers, putting them at greater risk of health and behavioral problems and making them vulnerable to abuse and displacement, the Associated Press reports. Black and Hispanic women are more likely to be imprisoned than white and are affected disproportionately by family separation due to incarceration. The number of women incarcerated dropped by about 30%, to 146,000, from 2019 to 2020, according to U.S. Department of Justice data. The Prison Policy Initiative attributes that decrease to slowdowns in court proceedings, temporary process changes and efforts to reduce prison populations due to the pandemic.

Female prison and jail populations are rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. “We are seeing more and more families separated,” said Alexis Mansfield, Reunification Ride coordinator for the Women’s Justice Institute. Although women are far less likely to be imprisoned than men, their incarceration can have outsized effects on families, Mansfield said. She has witnessed children reuniting with their incarcerated mothers after months or years apart who “immediately disclose that they’re being abused or that they’re facing a challenge at school.” Incarcerated women tend to be the primary caregivers and often are the breadwinners, meaning children whose mothers are imprisoned are frequently displaced or enter the child welfare system. The impact of this kind of “ambiguous loss” of a parent can lead to increased risk of health issues, developmental delays, behavioral problems and issues with education. Kids moving in with a different caregiver often must switch schools abruptly.


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