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Parents Losing Children Because They Can’t Repay Foster Care Costs Incurred During Incarceration

by Jo Ellen Nott

When parents are incarcerated, their children are often placed in foster care. A little-noticed federal law from the “tough on crime” Reagan era requires states to bill those parents for a portion of their kids’ foster care. But since federal subsidizing of foster care applies only to families eligible for welfare, this misguided policy thus targets the nation’s poorest families.

On July 29, 2022, the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released new guidelines recommending that states stop charging and collecting money from poor families whose children had to go into foster care. 

HHS took notice after NPR reported in 2021 that “the practice keeps struggling parents in debt and can delay or even prevent them from being reunited with their children.” After these parents serve their time, most are anxious, if not desperate, to re-unite with their children. However, in at least 12 states, mothers and fathers can lose the rights to parent their children forever if they do not repay this debt to the government. As an added kick in the teeth, most are never even informed of what they owe.

The costs range from $25 to more than $1,000 a month. Since the federal Office of Justice Programs estimates that the average length of pretrial detention in the U.S. is 135 days, that means a bill up to $4,500 – a staggering amount for a family of limited means.

NPR found “at least twelve states” where “failure to pay the foster care bill is a valid reason for courts to terminate a parent’s right to his or her child altogether”: Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin. All have laws that financially punish families who have gone through rough times and, in most cases, are still struggling to make ends meet after parents are released and reunited with their kids. 

The U.S. ought to stop criminalizing poverty, and getting rid of these laws would be a big step. So would eliminating cash bail, which keeps poor people in pre-trial detention despite the legal presumption of their innocence. 

Source: National Public Radio

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