A Law’s Fallout: Women in Prison Fight for Custody

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The Wall Street Journal recently published a front-page story about the far-reaching consequences of maternal incarceration on children and families. The February 27 article, written by Laurie P. Cohen, focused on the difficulties incarcerated mothers face in maintaining their parental rights to their children. It references the recently released report by the CA’s Women in Prison Project, When “Free” Means Losing Your Mother: The Collision of Child Welfare and the Incarceration of Women in New York State, which takes an in-depth look at these same issues.

The following was excerpted from the Wall Street Journal article.

In January 2004, Tamika Davis was leaving a department store in a mall with her son, when security officers nabbed her for stealing men’s jeans and shirts.

Her children, an 11-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, were eventually sent to foster care. Last summer, while Ms. Davis was completing her jail term, child welfare authorities moved to end her parental rights, so the children could be avail- able for adoption. Now free, Ms. Davis, 29, is fighting the move. …”I’m numb,” she says. “I fear I’ll never see my kids again.”

Under a 1997 federal law, states must move to end the rights of parents whose children have been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months. The law, known as the Adoption and Safe Families Act, was intended to keep abused or neglected children from languishing in foster care while their biological parents, often drug-addicted, tried to kick their habits. …Prison sentences for many women are longer than the 15-month period the law dictates, meaning they automatically risk losing their children.

…The Act creates a situation that is “a violation of the fundamental rights of parents and children to have relationships with one another,” says Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Correctional Association of New York’s Women in Prison Project. The nonprofit group will release a report soon calling for changes in a New York law with requirements similar to the federal act. The report argues that the government should make exceptions to the 15-month rule for incarcerated individuals with children in foster care. It recommends that child-welfare agencies help maintain relationships between children and their incarcerated parents.

…Jacqueline Smith spent more than nine years in a federal prison in Connecticut for possessing crack cocaine with intent to sell. She says the first time she learned she might lose her parental rights was when her daughter, Tracey, then 9, confided to her during a visit that she was going to be adopted. “Adoption? Where’d you get that from? Nobody said nothing to me about this,” Ms. Smith recalls telling her. … Both mother and daughter protested the idea of Tracey being adopted. … The goal for Tracey was eventually changed to reunification with her mother, who got out of prison in 2004. The two now live in an apartment in Brooklyn. “She made mistakes in her life,” Tracey says of her mother. “But I still knew I wanted her to be my mom and that I didn’t want to be adopted.”