Criminal Justice System Neglects Children of Imprisoned Mothers
By: Makebra M. Anderson
NNPA, National Correspondent
Originally posted 3/14/2005
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – For some children, it has been months since they’ve seen their mother. For others, it has been years. And for a few, they might never see their mother again. In all of the back and forth over prison, the children are often neglected. Women represent the fastest-growing prison population in the U.S., which means millions of children are left abandoned every year by incarcerated mothers. Because the justice system disproportionately affects people of color, Black and Hispanic children are at the greatest risk for loosing a parent to incarceration.
“From our research, these children have a cluster of risk factors. They're at increased risk for becoming involved with the law themselves, increased risk for drug and alcohol abuse, increased risk for behavior problems, increased risk for psychological programs, among other issues,” says Linda Baker, director of the Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System.
In 1999, more than 1.5 million children in the U.S. had a parent in prison. Only 25 percent of kids stay with their father, when their mother is incarcerated, compared to the 90 percent that stay with their mom, when their father is incarcerated, according to the BJS.
“The biggest issue for women in prison is separation from their kids—especially if they were the primary care giver. Whether it’s getting visits, keeping in touch through mail or maintaining custody and not loosing their kid to the foster care system,” Cassie Pierson, staff attorney for LSPC .
The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that the female prisoner population has increased significantly since 1995. There were 62,362 female prisoners in 1995 compared to 86,028 in 2000. The number of male prisoners also increased. In 1995, there were 961,210 male prisoners. Five years later, that number increased to 1,219,225.
A study by the Department of Justice observes, “women were over-represented among those convicted of low-level drug-related crimes and despite having no prior criminal histories, received sentences similar to those convicted as ‘high-level’ drug offenders under the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws.”
Before mandatory minimums for crack offenses went into effect, the number of African-Americans convicted of a drug-related crime was slightly higher than Whites. In 1986, Congress enacted mandatory drug sentencing.
Of the 246,100 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2001, 139,700 (56.7 percent) were Black, 47,000 (19 percent) were Hispanic and 57,300 (23.2 percent) were White, reports the BJS.
From 1986 to 1996, the number of women sentenced to state prison for drug crimes increased from approximately 2,370 to 23,700, according to an Amnesty International study “Not Part of My Sentence: Violation of the Human Rights of women in Custody.” Most of these women had children.
“If the child is present when mom is arrested and there is no other adult around who can take care of them the police will call in social services. Then Child Protective Services takes at least temporary custody,” explains Cassie Pierson, staff attorney for LSPC.
“What we have found is that at least in California, there is no set protocol for who should be called or what should be done if the child is present at the time of arrest. One county will do one thing and another county will do something different. Every once in awhile we get these horror stories where mom is busted, child is present and no arrangements are made. Sometimes the child lives alone for days or weeks until somebody figures out what’s happening.”
Baker, who also works with women in prison agrees and says that the justice system should think of better ways to help women and children adjust to prison life.
“Throughout the world there are pockets of promising programs where there are opportunities for visits with children, but often there are no special considerations for visits with a child. There is so much more we could be doing in terms of educating children’s mental health providers and child protection workers. We could be educating them more about what the impacts of maternal incarceration might be on a child. What some of their fears are. What some of the distortions they might have because of their age are, and how we could support them,” she said.
Some of those “alternative” facilities are in California. One program is called the Community Prisoner Mother Program (CPMP), which is a program that allows women convicted for nonviolent offenses to serve their sentences in live-in facilities with their children. Mothers receive case management, including parenting classes, vocational training and substance abuse treatment.
“There are three CPMP facilities in the state of California. Each one houses about 24 women and the women have to meet a long list of eligibility criteria before they can get in that program,” Pierson of LSPC said. “I get mixed reviews on these types of programs. On paper it looks good, but I get complaints from some women.”
The CPMP program and other facilities like it are designed to make it easier for children to cope with having a jailed parent. Not only do some people question these types of programs, they also question whether or not a child should visit his/her parent in prison at all.
“All children are not the same. It is possible that there might be a child that would be particularly distressed by visiting a parent in jail—especially if there isn’t a mother/child visiting room in the jail; however, for most children it’s very reassuring to see mom and to know that she is ok,” Baker said.
About 64 percent of women lived with their children prior to incarceration, compared to 44 percent of men, reports the BJS.
“What we found was that the impact on children when a father is incarcerated is different. There is often a mother in the home who enables the child to stay in the same residence. They still have their toys, their bedroom and mommy is still there… when many men come out of jail, they step out of jail and go back to their family home where things are still in place for them because their wife/partner has been taking care of things. When women come out of jail often it means finding a place, which is often a shelter for the first while, because they may have lost their home or apartment.”
She adds,“There are impacts for paternal incarceration and maternal incarceration, but I think the impacts are disproportionately more severe on children when it’s their mother,” she explains. “There are practical consequences in terms of change in school, change in caregiver, etc. and there are potential emotional consequences like feelings of shame, hurt, separation anxiety, sadness and confusion.”