I got an email yesterday from someone at the Correctional Association, saying that the New York State Assembly passed a billthat could make it easier for incarcerated parents to retain custody of their kids.
The bill mediates the impact of ASFA (the Adoption and Safe Families Act), which mandates that the state move to terminate parental rights if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. ASFA was intended to address real problems in the foster care system: kids can spend years bouncing from placement to placement, where terrible things often happen to them and terrible outcomes often result (click herefor an interesting study: http:). But ASFA is like slapping a coat of paint on a building overrun by termites. It doesn't fix anything. According to the Correctional Association, of the roughly 21,000 children who were freed for adoption in New York City from 2000 to 2004, about 14,000 were adopted. More than 7,000 were not.
The median minimum sentence for a woman in a New York prison is 36 months, which means that if her child is in foster care, her parental rights will almost certainly be threatened by ASFA, regardless of her ability or history as a parent. Case workers have the power to delay termination procedings if they can document a "compelling reason" why termination wouldn't be in the best interest of the child. The problem is that incarcerated parents face extreme challenges demonstrating the strength of their relationships with their kids to caseworkers, who have enormous caseloads and high turnover rates. Incarcerated women don't have the freedom to make phone calls when they want -- to their kids or their caseworkers -- or to arrange family visits. They're often not informed about family court hearings that involve their children's custody, or provided with legal counsel if they're unable to show up at court.
As a result, thousands of women who wanted to be mothers to their kids have lost the right even to have contact with them.
Which is crazy.
Nebraska, New Mexico and Colorado provide for ASFA exceptions for incarcerated parents. New York should, too. Now it's up to the Senate...
For more information, see the Correctional Association's report on Incarcerated Mothers.
Nell Bernstein's fastidiously researched book: All Alone in the World