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Report: More Should be Done to Preserve Rights of Incarcerated Parents

A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office has recommended that federal and state agencies do more to address the needs of families of incarcerated parents and their children, beginning with reporting requirements to better identify the children whose parents are incarcerated, and better communication between child-welfare agencies and corrections departments.
“Federal law sets timelines for states’ decisions about placing foster-care children in permanent homes, and in some cases for filing to terminate parental rights,” according to the GAO report, which was submitted to Congress. “Some policymakers have questioned the reasonableness of these timelines for children of incarcerated parents and expressed interest in how states work with these families.”
U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott and Rep. Charles Rangel asked the GAO to examine the number of foster-care children with incarcerated parents, which has been an underidentified demographic. The congressmen also wanted to know how child-welfare and corrections agencies in some states support efforts to ensure that prisoners have contact with their children, as well as the reunification of those families once prisoners are released.
The GAO found that “foster-care children with an incarcerated parent” likely number in the tens of thousands. As recently as 2009, according to the GAO report, about 14,000 children nationwide were known to enter foster care largely because one or both of their parents were incarcerated.
However, due to shortcomings in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) national data system – the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) – the 2009 data is certain to be an “undercount” for several reasons, according to the GAO.
For example, the data does not include some children who are cared for by a relative when a parent is sent to prison or jail, and then placed in foster care if the child is deemed at-risk of abuse or neglect by the relative. Nor does the data include children who enter foster care before their custodial parent is incarcerated, or cases where noncustodial parents are incarcerated before or after their children are placed in foster care.
“Researchers and local officials interviewed [by the GAO] noted that these circumstances were more common than placement in foster care specifically due to parental incarceration,” the report stated. “While such additional information about a parent’s incarceration may be in the child’s individual child welfare case file, it is not reported in the data conveyed to HHS and incorporated into AFCARS.”
Often, child-welfare caseworkers cite general or inaccurate reasons for a child’s placement in foster care, such as “neglect” if a parent is incarcerated. New York, which has the second-largest foster-care population in the U.S., has historically failed to report any reasons for a child’s removal from the home.
As a result, HHS is revising AFCARS and developing new reporting requirements. Once the reporting systems are updated, HHS hopes a range of strategies can be implemented to promote family ties between foster-care children and their incarcerated parents.
The GAO surveyed 10 states, including California, Nebraska, Oregon, Colorado and New York, to evaluate certain options. Federal law, according to the GAO report, “allows for exceptions on a case-by-case basis to the requirement that states file to terminate parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months.” Some of the states surveyed have enacted additional provisions to delay or prevent the termination of incarcerated parents’ rights in certain situations.
Nebraska, in fact, prohibits the termination of parental rights based solely on the parent’s incarceration. California and New York require child-welfare agencies and courts “to consider the particular barriers faced by incarcerated parents ... when making certain decisions regarding termination.” And both of those states specify in their statutes the “reasonable efforts” provision of federal law to reunify foster-care children with their incarcerated parents.
In New York, child-welfare agencies are directed by state law to arrange “for transporting the child to visit the correctional facility” where their parent is being held. And in California, which has the nation’s largest foster-care population, courts may allow incarcerated parents to use videoconferencing to participate in certain family court proceedings.
“In general, returning children to their home is the preferred goal of state child-welfare agencies,” the GAO report concluded. “But this goal is still dependent on various factors, such as the extent that a parent has completed rehabilitative treatment or maintained a meaningful role in the child’s life through visits or other forms of contact.”

Source: “Child Welfare: More Information and Collaboration Could Promote Ties Between FosterCare Children and Their Incarcerated Parents,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, Report No. GAO-11-863 (Sept. 2011)

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