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Mothers in Prison Losing All Parental Rights

Dial up Michelle Spruill and her gentle voice recording tells you that "if you ever need a helping hand, you can find one at this number." On her other line she signs off, "God loves you and so do I." Knowing that Spruill reluctantly gave up two sons for adoption two years ago, a recent caller can't help wondering if the messages aren't somehow intended for their ears.

In late 1996, Spruill began serving a five-year sentence in an Illinois prison for various property crimes that stemmed from drug abuse. One of her sons was placed in foster care. Another, born in prison, followed. But Spruill was determined to eventually reunite with her children, so she began rehabilitating herself, taking parenting-skills courses and undergoing substance-abuse treatment.

Her efforts appeared to pay off. After two years, Spruill was released into a halfway home and she began the necessary court proceedings to get her kids back. There, however, she encountered the Adoption and Safe Families Act, a federal law passed in 1997 that requires states to move to sever a parent's right to a child after he or she has spent 15 months in foster care.

"Too little, too late," is what a state attorney told her. After waging a legal battle for almost a year, she surrendered her parental rights in 2000 so that her sons' foster parents could adopt them.

"I didn't want to," says 29-year-old Spruill, who says she's been drug-free for seven years and currently holds down two jobs in Chicago, including one as a nanny. "But I was certain I would lose my rights to my elder son. And my biggest thing was that my two boys stay together."

15 Months Becomes

a Bright-Line Rule

Spruill's story has become a familiar one to the many prison advocates and service providers gathered in New York in 2002 for the 10th National Roundtable for Women in Prison. The sponsor of the event, the National Network for Women in Prison, invited Spruill and other former prisoners to join discussions on the Adoption and Safe Families Act and on the other effects that women's crimes and incarceration have on families, children and communities. The roundtable specifically addressed the role of spirituality and faith in recovery and the pathways that are leading women and girls to enter the prison system at younger and younger ages.

Lisa Paine-Wells, a program associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says one good thing has resulted from the Adoption and Safe Families Act. "It has put people's attention up front on children. And it has made states more responsible than in the past for permanency plans for cases in which reunification would not be able to happen for three, four and five years."

She and other experts also agree that there are situations when it is probably better not to reunitesuch as when a mother has committed extreme forms of child abusebut, otherwise, rehabilitation and reunification should be the priorities. And when that's not possible, foster or adopted children should at least be permitted ongoing contact with their birth mother.

"We know that children do best in their own families or at least in the same community. We know that children have a need to belong and to understand where they came from. And we know that, by and large, they always want to be with their parents," Paine-Wells says.

"It's much easier for a child to remain with her family than it is to adapt and bond to a new family."

From 1985 to 1997, the U.S. female prioner population tripled. According to 1997 figures from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the most recent available, on any given day more than 100,000 women are held in U.S. prisons or jails. The overwhelming majority of them have committed drug-related or non-violent property crimes.

An estimated 200,000 children have an incarcerated mother and more than 1.6 million have a father in prison, according to the Child Welfare League of America. But many experts believe the number of children with incarcerated mothers is actually much higher, especially as law-enforcement agencies are not required to gather specific information on prisoners' children and because many women, fearing they may lose their children to the child welfare system, do not disclose that they've left children behind in the care of relatives and friends.

But not all women have such a safety net. Since incarcerated mothers tend to be their family's sole caregiver, many of their children do end up in foster care, bouncing chaotically from one home to another. Some children are transported out of state, where they have little or no opportunity to visit their mothers in prison. Ripped away from all that is familiar, they experience separation anxiety, low self-esteem and a range of other negative consequences, according to the Child Welfare League.

Most experts view the Adoption and Safe Families Act as a laudable attempt to establish needed stability for foster children. Promoted by then-first lady Hillary Clinton, the law amended the Adoptions Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980, which provided financial incentives for states to make "reasonable efforts" to prevent foster care. The 1997 legislation goes farther by putting permanent placement on a fast track. This, added to the 1996 changes in federal welfare laws that barred felons for the first time from receiving federal welfare payments and food stamps, made a bad situation worse, critics say.

Foremost, the federal adoption law requires states to begin terminating a parent's right to her child after the child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. Many incarcerated women are serving prison terms longer than that. Exceptions allow caseworkers to examine individual cases for compelling reasons not to file.

Martha Raimon, director of the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project of the Women's Prison Association and Home, Inc. in New York, says however, "Many caseworkers have used the time limit as a bright line: Fifteen months and you're out."

The exceptions for when a state may choose not to file termination proceedings include when a relative is caring for the child, when the foster care agency has not provided appropriate services or when the agency documents that termination would not be in the child's best interests. But for an incarcerated mother to make a persuasive case for reunification, she must have regular contact with her caseworker, frequent visits with her child and access to a judge.

Number of Children Affected

by Law Unknown

While no organization tracks how many parents have been affected by the law, or how they've been affected (one goal of the National Network for Women in Prison is further research on incarcerated women), Gail Smith, executive director of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, says she knows of women whose rights have been severed even when there is no adoptive parent on the horizon.

"We are creating a pool of legal orphans," Smith says. "Many of these foster children are not babies; they are not at an age when they're likely to be adopted. So instead of permanency it creates more foster care drift."

Once parental rights are terminated, the decision is usually final. "After that," says Raimon, "there is no contact permitted between the birth mother and child. No phone calls. No letters. No visits. And it's rarely appealable."

Spruill can attest to the enormous difficulty this poses for the birth mother: "If I can only just contact my sons, and talk to her [the adoptee mother]," she says. "It would give me some clarity and make me feel better."

Ann Farmer is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Reprinted with permission of Women's Enews, 146 W. 29th St. Rm. 7R, New York, NY 10001,

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