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The Parents' Project Advocacy for Incarcerated Fathers: What's Missing?

Denise Johnston & Michael Carlin

T.L. had a son with a woman who lived in another part of his home state. He had little contact with the woman after the baby's birth, and never met her family. When his son was 3 months of age, T.L. was arrested. Two years later, facing a life sentence, T.L. has attempted to write and call the boy's mother without success. There is no one by her name living in the city where they met.

I.G. was sentenced to 10 years in a state prison; their mother refused to bring his children to the prison to visit, but I.G. had weekly telephone calls with his daughters. Then, during the second year of his sentence, I.G.'s daughters and their mother moved to another part of the country without leaving a forwarding address. I.G. wants to see his daughters or at least talk to them on the phone, but he doesn't know how to find them.

In 1990, the Center for Children of
Incarcerated Parents created the Child Custody Advocacy Services [CHICAS] Project to help the families of prisoners retain custody of their children. We assumed that the greatest child custody problem facing incarcerated parents was loss of their children to the child welfare system, and during the first 5 years of the project this was true of CHICAS clients. During the period 1990-95, a total of 70% had active cases in the Juvenile Dependency Court, compared to 15% with cases in Family Court and 15% who had child custody problems without court involvement. At the time of this study, 76% of incarcerated CHICAS clients were moms and 24% were dads.

Now, eight years later, our CHICAS caseload looks very different. Almost all CHICAS clients (about 80%) are incarcerated fathers. Very few have children in the foster care system. While some want help getting their rights to visitation with their kids enforced, and others want to challenge their children's current placement and custody status, the great majority of these dads don't know where their children are and want help in locating them.

This information is consistent with the results of the large-scale federal study of incarcerated parents published by the US Department of Justice in August, 2000. That study found that than one in five imprisoned fathers had no contact whatsoever with their children.

Fathers Without Children

Without knowledge of where one's children are, who they are and how they are doing, parenthood issues become particularly challenging. The emotions that fathers feel in these circumstancesanger, grief, guilt, shame, sorrow and anxietyare hard to manage. Our experience has been that fathers will usually react to this situation in one of three ways:

Fathers may become motivated to seek out assistance in finding their children. Very few prisoners have the resources to pay to locate their children. Among the rest, only a small group of incarcerated fathers will work their way through a well-worn series of steps in seeking their children. This experience has been described by Mike Carlin (Family & Corrections Network Report, 2001 )and includes requesting assistance from the courts, the public social services, prison personnel, prison legal aid agencies, and community programs serving prisoners. But none of these entities is funded or trained to find missing persons, and requests to them almost never produce results. Only a few dads in this group will persevere until they hook up with an agency that formally provides assistance in locating prisoners' children at no charge.

Ø Fathers may deny the importance of the issue. Locked into a static situation and deprived of the resources they need to find and learn to know their children, many fathers will psychologically retreat from the issue of total separation from their children, denying its importance in their lives and the lives of their kids. This position contributes to the impression that male prisoners have limited interest in children, parenting and fatherhood.

Ø Fathers may become overwhelmed by their feelings. Missing their children and unable to acquire the resources to find them, fathers may begin to feel powerless. In combination with the other feelings that loss produces, a sense of powerlessness as a father can compound the common situational stressors of prison that often lead to depression. Depressed fathers may withdraw and isolate, self-medicate and/or release their frustration through aggression.

The large numbers (over 150,000 on any given day) of imprisoned fathers who have no contact with their children suggests that this issue is an important one. If 400 of these men per year are finding their way to the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents with circumstances like those of T.L. and I.C., there are undoubtedly tens of thousands of others who have not found assistance.

Assumptions About Fathers in Prison

Several studies that have found that most post-conviction litigation by male prisoners addresses conditions of confinement or appeals of criminal convictions, while most litigation by women prisoners concerns child custody and family law matters. These findings have supported the assumption that parent, child and fatherhood issues are not of great importance to male prisoners.

Our experience in the CHICAS Project suggests other interpretations of this data. First, we believe that a large proportion of women prisoners with child custody issues have children in the foster care system and are compelled by the dire consequences of involvement in that system to seek legal assistance; unlike foster care cases, termination of parental rights is not a potential consequence of most Family Law cases. Second, we believe that many fathers in jail and prison do not seek legal assistance for child custody issues because their primary issuelocating their childrenis not amenable to legal intervention. Third, we also believe that post-conviction litigation patterns strongly reflect the availability of particular types of legal expertise in post-conviction projects; for example, out of the hundreds of post-conviction legal assistance programs at men's correctional facilities, only a tiny minority employ attorneys with expertise in family law.

Recommendations for Advocacy & Legal Assistance Services

If these interpretations are correct, what kinds of basic services do incarcerated fathers need? These are some recommendations from the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents:

Ø Legal advocacy and assistance in the area of Family Law should be accessible to incarcerated fathers. For example, such services should be located on-site at correctional facilities.

Ø Advocacy services for incarcerated fathers should allow them to locate and make contact with their adult and minor children. Such services require staff with expertise in investigation, documentary search skills, working with the child welfare and educational systems, family systems and family assessment.

Ø Incarcerated fathers should be offered services that address parent-child separation, grief and loss of their children; without assistance in this area, many fathers will not even consider making use of legal advocacy and legal assistance services.

Ø Parent programs in prison should not only address the ideal and rare situation in which fathers lived with all of their children prior to incarceration and will reunify with those children after release, but should also address paternal identity in the long-term or permanent absence of children. Prisoners who have no contact with their children are nevertheless fathers, and fatherhood is still an integral part of their identity.

Denise Johnston is co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Michael Carlin is a Program Associate of the Center and coordinates the FatherRight Project.

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