Charting a Course: Meeting the Challenge of Permanency Planning for Children with Incarcerated Mothers

Article excerpt

Case workers involved in permanency planning for children whose mothers are incarcerated must assess the family's strengths, the mother's capacity to assume parental responsibilities, and the integrity of the parent-child relationship; and address concerns regarding the short- and long-term effects of the children's socioemotional dislocation and the merits of their retaining a relationship with their mothers. At the same time, correctional policies and practices delineate the nature and extent of contacts with the mother and the mother's access to rehabilitative programs. Agency guidelines, practice tools, and advocacy initiatives must be developed to help practitioners meet these challenges. An initial review of the Adoption and Safe Families Act suggests the need for close monitoring of the impact of its mandates to shorten the time for moving children toward permanency and its weakening of the expectation for "reasonable efforts" to be made to reunify families.

Case workers developing permanency plans for children in out-of-home care must assess the integrity of the children's relationships with their parents and the feasibility of family reunification, and implement plans that promise permanence through reunification, adoption, or alternative living arrangements. When a mother is incarcerated, the process of developing and implementing permanency plans presents contours and characteristics that differ from those typically encountered. Until recently, case workers did not often work with children in care whose mothers were incarcerated; the number of incarcerated women in the U.S. was small. In the past 25 years, however, the number of women in state and federal prisons increased from about 6,000 to 74,730, and the average daily population of female inmates in local jails rose from 19,077 to 59,296 between 1985 and 1997 [Gilliard & Beck 1998; Mumola & Beck 1997]. More than 75% of incarcerated women are mothers, the majority of whom had custody of dependent children prior to their incarceration [Bloom & Steinhart 1993; Greenfeld & MinorHarper 1991; Snell 1994]. While most of their children are cared for by grandmothers, other relatives, and friends, as many as 13% are in out-of-home care [Bloom & Steinhart 1993; Festler 1991; McGowan & Blumenthal 1978; Snell 1994; Stanton 1980]. This article addresses the challenges facing case workers who manage cases in which the mother is incarcerated, and discusses the need for child welfare agencies to develop practice guidelines and resources in anticipation of such cases. The passage of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (P.L. 105-89) in late 1997 creates a sense of urgency for such development. The act's expectations will likely accentuate the difficulties that already present themselves when managing cases involving incarcerated parents.

Assessing the Mother's Capabilities

Constraints on an incarcerated mother's ability to plan and prepare for her postrelease life have long presented formidable challenges for case planning. The ease with which a prognosis for the mother's rehabilitation or reunification with her children can be developed is restricted by the limited availability of discharge planning, counseling, substance abuse treatment, vocational or parent education, and similar services for women in jails and prisons [Gray et al.1995; Schoenbauer 1986]. Such services are needed because the majority of incarcerated mothers have a history of family and personal problems [Adalist-Estrin 1994; Owen & Bloom 1995]. In the absence of meaningful support and rehabilitation services, the mother's ability to alter her life course and successfully reunify and sustain her family as a healthy, viable unit is severely hampered. The incarcerated mother may be pressured to make use of the narrow range of inadequate services available and to "test out" any newly acquired skills in the artificial setting of the jail or prison [Beckerman & Hutchison 1988]. …