When “Free” Means Losing Your Mother: A New Report from the Women in Prison Project

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The crisis of families torn apart by prison has grown considerably worse over the past three decades: a significant increase in the number of incarcerated women has resulted in thousands of children–innocent of any crime–being separated from their primary caregivers. The CA’s upcoming report, When “Free” Means Losing Your Mother: The Collision of Child Welfare and the Incarceration of Women in New York State, analyzes the devastating social, emotional and economic disruption families often endure when a mother is incarcerated.

An incarcerated mother must overcome numerous obstacles to maintain a stable relationship with her children, including insufficient visiting and family reunification services, sometimes poor or nonexistent legal representation, and inadequate coordination between corrections departments, child welfare agencies and the courts.

Recent changes in New York’s child welfare policy have made it even more difficult for incarcerated mothers to retain parental rights to their children: the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) almost always requires a foster care agency to file a petition to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months. As a result, hundreds of incarcerated mothers– including mothers whose children remain in foster care solely because they cannot find an alternative temporary home–face the risk of losing parental rights to their children forever.

Children of incarcerated mothers suffer considerable emotional hardship, such as anxiety, guilt, fear and depression. Beyond the damage to their well-being, children with incarcerated mothers are more likely than their peers to get caught up in the criminal justice system.

When “Free” Means Losing Your Mother offers practical recommendations for criminal justice, corrections and child welfare policy reforms that would help rebuild families affected by incarceration, reduce recidivism and interrupt the intergenerational cycle of crime and prison. Until New York adopts such reforms, broken lives and families will remain a defining legacy of female imprisonment.

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