Thursday, January 14, 2010: 4:00 PM
Pacific Concourse A (Hyatt Regency)
* noted as presenting author
Background: Although women comprise a smaller proportion of the incarcerate population (11%) the effects of incarceration on their children may be more acutely experienced. Less likely to have a paternal caregiver, approximately 11% of their children are in foster care. Patterns of drug/alcohol misuse may further complicate reentry and facilitate a cycle of recidivism and child welfare (CW) involvement. Current CW policies may be aggressive in termination of parental right (TPR) under such conditions, but CW workers have little empirical evidence to inform their decision making. This study answers the following questions: Do incarcerated mothers reunite with their children and retain custody? Does subsequent criminal activity predict negative CW outcomes? Method: This prospective longitudinal study uses mixed methods to present findings based upon 10 or more years of merged state-level CW, payments, and criminal justice (CJ) administrative data on 84 mother/child dyads. All of the mothers were felony convicted and sentenced to prison at the time of the child's birth - where original data collection began. Inclusion in the study was based on mother's having a non-violent offense with a brief minimum sentence; desire to parent child thereby retaining legal custody; agreement to participate in the study and a verification of a live birth via hospital records. Although 97 women that entered prison pregnant between 1996 and 1998 agreed to participate in the study, only 84 mothers met all study criteria. The sample is disproportionately African American (55%) and the age of mothers at the time of the child's birth averaged 29 years (SD 5.4). Results: One third of the women (33%) remained arrest free through the study period. However, this lack of CJ activity was insufficient in predicting an absence of CPS, foster care or TPR. More serious CJ involvement (i.e. felony arrest) did predict foster care placement (÷² (1) = 6.77; p = .009) and TPR (÷² (1) = 4.34; p = .04). Overall, 33% (n=28) of women lost parental rights after an average of 5.6 years (SD 2.4). Of those who retained legal custody (n=56; 66%), only 2 children are currently in foster care. However, case study analysis suggests that 18 of the children were cared for through an informal network (someone other than mother) at some point during the study period. Regression models predicting TPR were non-significant even when considering race, presence of a felony arrest, number of CPS allegations, and age of mother at birth. Conclusions: Two-thirds of children born to these incarcerated mothers remain in their legal custody after10 years. For these children there has been little foster care involvement and evidence that family/friends are providing informal support. Although felony offenses and incarceration are rare, and serious, occurrences for women, it is not prohibitive to resuming and continuing their parenting role. The complexity of the data, and the lives of these mothers and their children, argues for more nuanced decision making. Social workers have a role in supporting relationships between parents and children during their incarceration/reentry and in strengthening an informal network of support.