Policy Brief: Helping Children of Incarcerated Parents & Children in Foster Care Calls for Alternative Sentencing and Keeping Kids at Home

We know parental incarceration often leads to additional challenges for already disadvantaged and under-resourced families. However, it may also lead to the complete and permanent loss of the parent-child relationship. When parents go away to prison, other parents, caregivers, and/or family members must step in to provide support. If these parents do not have another parent or family who can step in, many of these children will end up in the foster care system. Based on numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a majority of parents in state prisons have been in for 12 to 59 months and had 12 to 50 months left to serve. This time served is significantly more than the child welfare timeline allows and may lead to the permanent separation of families involved in the child welfare system.

A recent policy brief released in Spring 2018, “Helping Children with Parents in Prison and Children in Foster Care,” by John H. Laub and Ron Haskins of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution calls for:

  1. Expanding the use of alternatives to incarceration including eliminating pretrial jail time and use of non-monetary bail systems that keep families in the community;
  2. Making it easier and less traumatic for children to visit their incarcerated parents; and
  3. Creating school-based and community-based programs to help overcome the challenges they face.

For children in foster care, the brief calls for reducing the number of children in foster care by keeping them out of the system to begin with, as well as if the child must go into foster care, increasing the quality of foster care parents (through training and support). They also draw upon the fact that these two populations overlap, citing work by Kristin Turnery and Christopher Wildeman that has shown that 40 percent of children in foster care had been exposed to parental incarceration at some point in their lives.

One problem I see with this policy brief is that Laub and Haskins highlight video visitation as an alternative option to in person visits to avoid harms created by poor in-prison visitation environments. However, this proposal is problematic and short-sighted and not in touch with the ease at which, if prioritized, visitation environments can be supportive. Instead, video visitation should be only an extra form of contact for families who also have options for in person contact visits (face to face). Any video visit programs should also be inexpensive and accessible. Research and child psychologists have suggested that incarceration facilities implement child-friendly visitation policies, including creating a positive, safe, and friendly environment for visits. This may include child sized furniture, games, toys, friendly décor, murals, etc. Prepping parents, children, and caregivers is also helpful. Further, utilizing opportunities to enhance parenting skills would help children of incarcerated parents. The following resources can help when designing and improving visits to a carceral setting:

For more discussion on this policy brief, you can watch videos from the May 9th, 2018 Brooking Institution “Helping Children of Incarcerated Parents and Children in Foster Care: A Future Children Event,” where the brief along with latest issue of “The Future of Children” journal was released:

A transcript of the event can be found here.

Link to the brief.

Riley Hewko, Esq.

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