Correlating Incarcerated Mothers, Foster Care and Mother-Child Reunification

By Moses, Marilyn C. | Corrections Today, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Correlating Incarcerated Mothers, Foster Care and Mother-Child Reunification


Moses, Marilyn C., Corrections Today


Author's note: Points of view expressed in this article do not represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Is a mother's incarceration directly responsible for her child's placement in foster care, and how likely is a mother to be reunited with her child? Interim findings from an ongoing NIJ-funded study (1) revealed surprising answers: most incarcerated mothers lost their children to foster care prior to incarceration and most are very unlikely to be reunited with their children.

The study, which was jointly funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the Open Society Institute, The Chicago Community Trust and the Russell Sage Foundation, was awarded to researchers at the Universities of California and Chicago. The researchers focused on mothers who were incarcerated in Illinois State prisons and the Cook County Jail in Chicago from 1990 to 2000 (2) to examine the relationship between a mother's imprisonment and the probability that her child would be placed in foster care. They also studied the children's foster care placement outcomes (see Figure 1).

Which Came First?

Researchers found that 27 percent of the incarcerated mothers had a child who had been placed in foster care at some point during the child's life. Surprisingly, researchers found that in most cases the mother's incarceration was not the reason the child was placed in foster care. In almost three-quarters of the cases, the child was placed in foster care prior to his or her mother's first incarceration. And in more than 40 percent of those cases, the child entered foster care as many as three years before his or her mother went to jail.

This finding contradicts a widely held assumption that children are placed in foster care as a direct result of their mothers' incarceration. The early findings indicate that a child's foster care status is rarely a direct result of a mother's imprisonment.

Likelihood of Mother-Child Reunification

Researchers also compared the outcomes for the children of these incarcerated mothers with outcomes for all children in foster care. Figure 1 shows that other children in foster care are twice as likely to reunite with their parents as children of incarcerated mothers in foster care. Additionally, children of imprisoned mothers are more likely to be adopted than all children in foster care. This could be for a number of reasons, but mostly because many of the children are placed in kinship/foster care, where they are taken care of by other relatives who adopt them.

Perhaps most notable is that children of incarcerated mothers were four times more likely to be "still in" foster care than all other children (see Figure 1). These children linger in foster care until they are 18 when they "age out" of the system; they do not reunify with their parents, get adopted, enter into subsidized guardianship, go into independent living or leave through some other means. Moreover, another recent study has found that children who "age out" have a high probability of ending up incarcerated as adults, regardless of whether their parents were incarcerated or not. (3)

Getting The Research Right

The interim findings from the study represent a significant step forward in the development of knowledge regarding incarcerated parents and their children. Until now, no study of this magnitude focused exclusively on the status of children of incarcerated parents. Instead, researchers had focused primarily on the incarcerated parent; data on children and their custody status were incidental to that inquiry.

Previously, several other factors also impeded research on these children: small sample sizes; reluctance of incarcerated parents, family members, and caregivers to provide information that might disrupt formal or informal custody arrangements; reliance on self-report; and insufficient funding and resources to locate and track children over time. …

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