by Denise Johnston and Michael Carlin, Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents
It is becoming increasingly common for incarcerated parents to lose contact with their children, or knowledge of their whereabouts, during their time in jail and/or prison. This phenomenon may seem surprising or unexpected in light of the tremendous increase in interest in prisoners' children over the past 2-3 years. But, in fact, it is consistent with the traditional approach to prisoners and their families, which was based upon several false assumptions, including:
Ø the assumption that most children of prisoners lived with their incarcerated parent prior to his/her incarceration;
Ø the assumption that most prisoners had lived in and would return to 2-parent, traditional nuclear families upon release; and
Ø the assumption that the obstacle to reunification of most prisoners and their children is simply incarceration.
None of these assumptions are correct. Many prisoners (and experienced practitioners who work with incarcerated parents and their families) have another perspective, recognizing that loss of contact between children and their parents in jail or prison is most often the outcome of complex family circumstances related to the causes of, but not caused by, incarceration. They also recognize that this type of parent-child separation usually cannot be remedied because there are no services that specifically address this problem.
Incarcerated Fathers & Mothers Have Different Patterns of Contact
While both mothers and fathers lose contact with their children while imprisoned, this experience is more common among incarcerated fathers because male prisoners had different patterns of living arrangements on the street than female prisoners.
Incarcerated Fathers & Their Children
Only about one fifth of incarcerated fathers live in a two-parent family with at least some of their children before their arrest. These are usually the fathers that have stable, long-term partnerships with their children's mothers and everyday parenting relationships with their children. They are also the men most likely to retain a partnership with the mothers of their children after they go to prison and are usually part of the 10-20% of incarcerated fathers who have visits (and other types of communication) with their children at least monthly.
At the other end of the spectrum are the fathers who have little or no relationship with their children. This group includes most of the 21% of fathers in prison who have no contact at all with any of their children during their incarceration. Many of these fathers lost contact with their children long before getting locked up.
In between is the largest group of incarcerated fathers, those who had contact with their children before getting arrested, but did not live with or provide daily care for them. The Department of Justice has found that over 60% of imprisoned fathers did not live with any of their children or the mothers of their children immediately prior to incarceration. It is fathers in this group that appear to be most at risk for losing contact with their children during incarceration.
Incarcerated Mothers & Their Children
Compared to incarcerated fathers, it is much more difficult to predict which women prisoners will lose contact with their children during incarceration. Most women prisoners lived with at least some of their children prior to incarceration. A small number lived in a two-parent family with at least some of their children, about a third lived with at least one of their children as a single parent, and another 15% lived with at least one of their children and other relatives or non-relatives.
Approximately 40% of incarcerated mothers did not live with any of their children prior to their arrest. However, unlike incarcerated fathers, many women in this situation go on to have contact with their children while they are imprisoned. Only 23% of incarcerated mothers never have any contact with their children while in prison.
Data from the Child Custody Advocacy Services [CHICAS] Project of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents suggests that women prisoners who are most likely to lose contact with their kids are those whose children are in foster care with unrelated foster parents. Unlike the partners of male prisoners, who most often retain custody and care of the men's children, the partners of incarcerated women are very likely to also be involved in the criminal justice system. This increases the risk that the children of women prisoners will have two incarcerated parents at the same time and enter foster care. The general rule is: the greater the involvement of an incarcerated mother's family in the criminal justice system, the more likely her children are to end up in foster care with unrelated caregivers.
How Do Incarcerated Parents and Their Children Lose Contact?
Perhaps the biggest factor in the loss of contact between incarcerated parents and their children is the character of the relationship between the parent and the children's caregiver. The less friendly the relationship between prisoners and their children's caregivers, the more likely they are to lose contact with their children.
Most of the children of incarcerated fathers live with their birth mothers. Because male prisoners typically have had their children by two or more women, only a minority of these fathers and mothers are in an on-going partnership when the father gets arrested. In addition, families of prisoners commonly experience stressorssuch as poverty, discrimination, unemployment, substance dependency and domestic violencethat make it likely that the partnerships between male prisoners and their women will be fragile. In fact, the partnerships of fathers in prison and their children's mothers often end during the father's incarceration. These separations are the most common cause of loss of contact between male prisoners and their children.
However, even though many women prisoners were not living with their children before incarceration, the children were often living in the care of their grandmothers and the mother-child relationship was maintained through the grandmother. Relationships between women prisoners and their mothers also tend to remain intact during the women's incarceration, and this fact alone may account for the higher rates of contact incarcerated mothers have with their children, as compared to incarcerated fathers.
Should Incarcerated Parents Attempt to Find "Lost" Children?
The Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents urges incarcerated parents to look for and reconnect with their children. However, we also encourage parents to be prepared for a long process of multiple efforts, many of which will be unsuccessful. Parents should prepare themselves for the process by truthfully answering the following questions:
Ø Why do I want to communicate with my missing child(ren)? What are my motives?
Ø What do I expect to achieve by contacting my child(ren)?
Ø What are some potential consequences of the search process for me as a parent? As a prisoner?
Ø If I find my child(ren), what might be the effects of any contact we have on the child(ren)?
Ø If I find my child(ren), what might be the effects of any contact we have on the child(ren)'s caregiver?
Ø What will I do if my child(ren) don't want to communicate with me after I find them?
Some prisoners decide to look for their child(ren) because they want to get in touch with the child(ren)'s other parent or caregiver. Some look for their children for other reasons that have nothing to do with the children or the parent-child relationship. Searching for children is not a healthy or positive thing to do for every incarcerated parent.
If, after reflecting on and answering these questions, incarcerated parents want to continue to look for children with whom they have lost contact, they should follow a simple but organized search plan.
How Can Incarcerated Parents Begin to Look for "Lost" Children?
Prisoners who want to begin looking for "missing" children can follow these initial steps for each child:
Step 1. Write out the following factual information about each child:
Ø The child's full legal name
Ø The full legal name, birthdate and birthplace of the other birth parent
Ø The child's birth date and birthplace
Ø The child's Social Security number
Ø The addresses at which the child has lived, particularly while attending school
Ø The names, addresses and telephone numbers of relatives, friends or neighbors who knew the child or the child's caregiver well
Ø Names of the schools the child has attended and the names of teachers who knew the child well.
Ø The names, addresses and telephone numbers of any Child Protective Services (CPS) social workers assigned to the child
Step 2. Write out a sentence that clearly and correctly describes the status of your legal (parental) rights to the child, including the name of the court(s) and date(s) of court actions that affected the child's custody. Parents may have:
Ø Full legal custody and parental rights. In families that have not been involved in either Family Court or the child welfare system (foster care), parents will have full legal custody of their children. In families that have been involved with those systems, parents may or may not have full legal custody. Most prisoners have full legal custody of their children.
Ø Shared custody. In this circumstance, a court has given another party physical custody of the child but the incarcerated parent retains his/her other legal rights to the child.
Ø No custody, when the child is in a foster care or a legal guardianship. In this situation, some parental rights (like communication and visitation) may be retained.
Ø No custody and no parental rights, when the parental rights have been terminated by the Juvenile or Family Court.
Step 3. Write out a short "Parent's Statement" that summarizes the reasons you are looking for the child and what you hope to achieve by reconnecting with the child.
Step 4. Open a "search" file for each child. Place a copy of the child's birth or baptismal certificate in the file along with any legal papers pertaining to the child's custody. (Birth certificates can be obtained by mail from county or state Departments of Records or Vital Statistics for a small fee. This public information is available to anyone.) Other documents that identify the prisoner as the child's birth or legal parent should also be included. Prisoners without documentary proof of a parental relationship to the child may have difficulty obtaining information from teachers, social workers and other sources outside of friends and family.
Step 5. Call or write a letter to every friend or family member who previously had or may currently have a relationship with the child; include your Parent's Statement somewhere in the text of the letter. The letter should ask the recipient to write back with 1) any information about the current status and well-being of the child that they are willing to provide; 2) any information about the child's current location; and/or 3) any reason(s) why they are unwilling to help the parent locate the child.
Step 6. Write a letter to each teacher, daycare worker or social worker who had previously worked or may currently work with the child; put your Parent's Statement in the letter. Parents should also include the child's full legal name and birth date in the letter. Ask the recipients to write back with 1) any information about the current status and well-being of the child that they are willing to provide; 2) any information about the child's current location; and/or 3) the reason(s) why they are unwilling to help the parent locate the child.
Step 7. Write a letter to the Child Protective Services in any jurisdiction in which the child lived, requesting information about any cases that may involve the child. The letter should contain a copy of the child's birth certificate or other documentation establishing the writer as the child's birth parent. The child's full legal name, birth date and birthplace, social security number and caregiver's name should be included, as well as the Parent's Statement and the name of the social worker assigned to the child's case, if any. Ask for a written response to the letter.
Step 8. Make copies of each document sent and received; these should be kept in the child's search file.
The responses to these many letters should guide incarcerated parents' next steps in searching for their children. Parents who receive no responses to these inquiries, or who receive information that cannot be followed up by prisoners or their freeworld friends and family should consider seeking the assistance of advocacy organizations that work with incarcerated parents.
The CHICAS Project continues to assist prisoners who are searching for their children. However, because the demand for help from CHICAS is overwhelming, project staff will request that prisoners seeking our assistance complete the above process before submitting an application for services.
For more information about the CHICAS Project, write to the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents at Box 41-286, Eagle Rock, California 90041.
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