The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

The Influence of Incarceration and Service Use On the Likelihood of Reunification for Mothers of Children in Foster Care

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 8:30 AM
Nautilus 4 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Amy D'Andrade, PhD, Associate Professor, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA
Background and Purpose

An increasing number of parents are incarcerated (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), and an increasing proportion of foster children have a parent in prison (Johnson & Waldfogel, 2002). Making use of ordered services within reunification timelines outlined by federal law is likely to be more difficult for incarcerated parents than for nonincarcerated parents due to the distance between prison locations and parents’ place of residence (Mumola, 2000), a lack of service availability and effectiveness (Loper & Tuerk, 2006), and differences in purpose and approach between correctional and child welfare institutions (Hairston, 1998). In spite of these concerns, there is very little empirical evidence regarding the association of incarceration and reunification for parents with children in foster care (Ryan, Marsh, Testa, & Louderman, 2006). This study explores the following research questions: 1. Controlling for demographics and problems, are mothers incarcerated during the case less likely to reunify than mothers who are not incarcerated during the case? 2. If so, does service use mediate the association between reunification and incarceration? The hypothesis was that incarceration was associated with a lowered likelihood of reunification, but that this would be mediated by service use: difficulty accessing services would explain the negative association of incarceration and reunification.


This was a secondary analysis of a data set collected for a previous study by the author. The original study examined services use and reunification for parents of a random sample of 145 children entering foster care in 2004 in one large urban county. Data on services ordered, parents’ characteristics, service use and case outcomes after 3 years were collected from court reports and court orders using a data collection form. For this study, observations consisted of the 132 mothers ordered to receive reunification services. Descriptive statistics and multivariate survival analyses were conducted to answer the research questions.


Controlling for mental health problems, domestic violence and substance use, incarceration was associated with a substantially lower likelihood of reunification. Service use appeared to mediate the relationship between reunification and incarceration, suggesting it is the difficulty accessing and using services that is behind the lower likelihood of reunification for incarcerated mothers, as opposed to some other characteristic associated with incarceration.

Conclusions and Implications

Findings suggest that increasing access to reunification services for incarcerated mothers could increase their chances of successful reunification. Improved collaboration and better tracking of data between criminal justice and child welfare systems are also recommended. Studies with larger samples, tracking the length of parents’ sentences, parental crimes, and service availability in prison are sorely needed to inform improvements to system processes.