Skip navigation

WA: Prisoners May Not Have Their Incarceration Used Against Them at Child Dependency Proceedings

On July 14, 2016, the Washington Supreme Court issued a decision affirming statutory provisions that strengthen the rights of incarcerated parents when the state initiates child dependency proceedings or tries to terminate parental rights.

In 2013, the Washington legislature enacted amendments to the dependency statute, RCW 13.34.180, to expressly address the “rights of parents who are incarcerated.” In short, the law barred a court from assuming the fact of incarceration makes it impossible for prisoners to parent their children.

This case concerned a woman named Edelyn Saint-Louis, whose parental rights to her then-5-year-old son, D.L.B., were terminated after she was imprisoned on and off for 8 months due to drug and alcohol-related issues. While Saint-Louis was jailed, D.L.B. was placed in foster care and eventually put up for adoption after his mother regularly missed visitation as well as other court-ordered requirements.

The state initiated parental termination proceedings, and Saint-Louis was released shortly before the hearing. The dispute in this case centered on a phrase in the amended statute that required the court to give special consideration to the parent “if the parent is incarcerated.”

That mandatory consideration includes whether the parent has maintained “a meaningful role” in the child’s life, whether the state agency has made “reasonable efforts” to reconcile the family, and if barriers prevented visitation or other meaningful parent-child contact.

Because Saint-Louis was not incarcerated at the time of the hearing, the trial court ruled – and the Washington Supreme Court agreed – that the provision “if the parent is incarcerated” did not apply to her. The termination of Saint-Louis’ parental rights was affirmed.

However, the Supreme Court made it clear that courts must strictly abide by the law’s provisions if termination proceedings occur when a parent is currently incarcerated, and courts cannot assume parental unfitness based on the mere fact of current or past incarceration. See: In re Dependency of D.L.B., 186 Wn.2d 103, 376 P.3d 1099 (Wash. 2016). 

Related legal case

In re Dependency of D.L.B.