The Unknowns Surrounding Foster Children with Incarcerated Parents

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Child Welfare: More Information and Collaboration Could Promote Ties Between Foster Care Children and Their Incarcerated Parents, examined the number of youth in foster care with incarcerated parents, how the child welfare and correctional systems worked together to continue family contact, and how larger government agencies, the Department of Health of Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) in particular, have supported local level agencies in this goal.

To summarize, the answers are:

  • No one really knows;
  • occasionally; and
  • not much.

Unfortunately, data from the HHS and the Bureau of Justice Statistics do not provide an accurate estimate of the number foster children with at least one parent incarcerated, nor do they provide information on the timing of the incarceration in relation to the removal of the child or children from the home. Known data from 2009 suggest that more than 14,000 youth were placed in foster care due to the incarceration of a parent.

In the 10 states studied, researchers successfully identified methods used to support families separated by both incarceration and the child welfare system including training for caseworkers, and when possible, parental involvement via telephone in child family court hearings. How often such or similar methods were utilized is unknown. It is also not clear if any long-term strategies were in place across systems to best facilitate goals of family reunification, or if and when kinship care was utilized. It should be noted that caseworkers in the child welfare system face extraordinary challenges working with correctional facilities due to the maze of regulations, policies and procedures found in both systems.

The GAO found that HHS does disseminate information to child welfare and correctional agencies to assist children and families involved in both systems, but the report mentions that such information was not necessarily easily located or timely. Also, the report indicates that federal prisons lack written guidelines for working with child welfare agencies and caseworkers.

The report concludes that routine, standardized distribution of up-to-date information, cross-system collaboration, clear protocols adhering to policy and working relationships between agencies at the local level would go far in maintaining familial bonds between foster children and their incarcerated parents. These, and several additional recommendations, are listed at the GAO website.

Even over a decade after its passage, the well-intentioned legislation to more quickly move foster children to permanent homes, via either family reunification or an adoptive home, makes the relevance of this report clear. While federal law deems states must make¬†“reasonable efforts” to reunify families,¬†states are allowed to define those efforts as they see fit. Luckily, legal advocates and some policymakers have long recognized and been working to address the issues raised by this report.