People Are Losing Their Parental Rights Simply for Incarceration

According to an analysis of approximately three million child welfare cases from across the nation, parents whose children are in foster care due only to incarceration are actually more likely to have their parental rights terminated than parents who are accused of physically or even sexually abusing their kids.

Generally, these incarcerated parents have never been accused of abusing or neglecting their children. They may not even have been involved in any criminal activities that endangered their children. Yet even though the right to parent one’s children is considered fundamental, incarcerated people often aren’t even allowed to attend the hearings where they lose their children.

“The right to your children is the most fundamental one you have, but we strip it from incarcerated parents so casually,” said one family attorney in Philadelphia. “This is the family separation crisis that no one knows about.”

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services records, incarcerated people with kids in foster care lose their parental rights in about 1 out of every 8 cases, the Marshall Project says. That rate is higher for women, whose children are five times more likely than men’s to enter foster care due to incarceration.

That may be a low estimate because the nonprofit only counted cases where a parent’s incarceration was marked as the only reason for the children being in foster care. There are plenty of others whose cases were mixed but who probably wouldn’t have lost their parental rights if not for incarceration.

One reason so many incarcerated parents lose their parental rights is a push for federally-funded child welfare programs to begin terminating parents’ rights after 15 months in foster care. This was meant to keep kids from languishing in foster care awaiting improvement on the part of their parents. However, the rule applies to imprisoned parents serving 15 months or longer, even when they’ve committed no actual harm against their kids.

The Marshall Project found at least 32,000 incarcerated parents who lost their children since 2006 despite there being no abuse allegations. In almost 5,000 of these cases, parents lost their parental rights due solely to incarceration.

Some seem to think that the kids are better off without their incarcerated parents, but a growing group of advocates argues that terminating the parental rights of prisoners tends to hurt the children even more. By many measures, kids do better when they remain in strong relationships with their incarcerated parents

Losing your kids is the worst possible collateral consequence of being convicted of a crime — and one few people deserve. If you are threatened with termination of your parental rights, you should contact an experienced attorney right away.


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