Research of Note for November 2006

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Rebuilding Families, Reclaiming Lives: State Obligations to Children in Foster Care and Their Incarcerated Parents
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law
Available at

For children of incarcerated parents, numerous obstacles make it difficult to maintain relationships with those parents.

More than half of mothers and fathers in state prisons report not having seen their children at all during their incarceration; most parents in federal and state prisons are housed 100 miles or more from their children – many in places inaccessible to public transportation; and even when children are able to visit, communication restrictions and visiting facilities that are insensitive to children impede the quality of their time together.

When those children are in foster care, the parents face an even greater pressure: an accelerated schedule for getting their act together, lest they lose their children, say researchers at the Brennan Center.

Their report says the mandates of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act unintentionally expedite the permanent separation of children from their incarcerated parents.

Under the 1997 law, states are required to terminate the parental rights of children who have been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.

The researchers found that most incarcerated parents – the majority of whom are sentenced for drug-related and other nonviolent offenses – can expect average sentences of 28 to 36 months, long enough to force the permanent loss of a child.

From 1991 to 1999, the number of minor children in the United States with a parent in state or federal prison rose from 936,500 to 1,498,800, and the number of children with an incarcerated mother nearly doubled, according to the report, which cites the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Federal data indicate that at the end of fiscal 2003, more than 29,000 of children in foster care (6 percent of all foster youth) had been removed from their homes due to parental incarceration. Parental drug use was listed as a concurrent reason for removal in 45 percent of those cases. Homelessness was listed as a co-existing factor in nearly a quarter of them.

“Our argument would be that, because the state has custody of both the children and the parent, [it] has an obligation to support those families in rehabilitating, in overcoming whatever challenges they may be facing,” said Lynn D. Lu, co-author of the report and associate counsel and Katz Fellow at the Brennan Center.

The report says those challenges include:

• Limited access and significant waiting periods for rehabilitative programs.
• The collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, which may severely impair a parent’s ability to obtain employment, housing, public benefits or post-secondary education after release from prison.
• Child welfare agencies that won’t accept collect calls from or support face-to-face visits with incarcerated parents, thus hindering communication and depriving caseworkers of the opportunity to witness parent-child bonds.
• Unexpected prison transfers of parents and rapid staff turnovers at child welfare agencies, leading to further breakdowns in communication.

The report discusses and applauds the efforts of several states to support families struggling to fulfill the requirements of both the correctional and child welfare systems, especially California, New York, Hawaii, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

It also urges the passage of the Second Chance Act, a bipartisan bill that would provide resources to former inmates upon re-entry to their communities. It also supports an amendment to that bill that would require states to develop interagency family reunification protocols for incarcerated parents and their children, including children in foster care and kinship care.

“We would like to see more federal guidance and support of those efforts, rather than the current state of affairs, which is to leave states to decide on their own whether they want to be supportive or not,” Lu said.

Fostering Hope: Preventing Teen Pregnancy Among Youth in Foster Care
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
Available at

Foster youth are more than twice as likely to become pregnant and have a child as youth in the general population, according to this report. And, it adds, those who age out of care at 19 have significantly higher rates of teen pregnancy and birth than youth who stay in the system past age 19.

Although the pregnancy and birth rates for teens in the United States has declined by about one-third over the past decade, one in three girls in the United States will become pregnant by age 20, the National Campaign says.

“In order to sustain the wonderful progress that has been made in the past decade in reducing teen pregnancy, special attention has to be given to groups with particularly high rates – and teens in foster care are one such group,” said Kristen Tertzakian, co-author of the report and manager of state and local outreach for the campaign.

No national data exist on the pregnancy and birth rates of foster teens; the study relied on comparisons between a survey of 732 foster youth in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin conducted by the Chapin Hall Center for Children, and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), which surveys adolescents in the general population.

The campaign and its partner on this project, the Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network of Chicago, also conducted focus groups with foster youth, foster parents and caseworkers in the Chicago area in early 2005.

The researchers found that:

• By age 19, nearly half of young women in foster care have been pregnant, compared with one-fifth of their peers not in foster care.
• Also by that age, 46 percent of teen girls in foster care who have been pregnant have had a subsequent pregnancy, compared with 29 percent of their peers outside the system.
• Girls in foster care are more likely than others to have had sexual intercourse by age 19 (90 percent vs. 78 percent).
• Compared with 19-year-olds still in foster care, those who aged out of the system at 19 are more likely to have become pregnant at least once and to have received prenatal care. About 20,000 adolescents age out of foster care annually.

Tertzakian said the campaign’s initiative to reduce pregnancy among youth in foster care will have a three-pronged approach.

First, it will encourage teen pregnancy prevention programs to “specifically reach out to foster youth” and encourage child welfare organizations to conduct such programs in their group homes and independent living facilities.

Second, it will facilitate more training for foster parents, tailored specifically for them, on how to “communicate with their foster kids on sex, love and relationships.”

Third, it will extend that training to case managers.

“We heard loud and clear from the child welfare providers in Chicago that they think they could be really helpful in reducing teen pregnancy,” Tertzakian said. “But they need training to do so, to feel comfortable with a topic such as sex.”

By the way, she added that all programs and training could include messages about both abstinence and responsible contraceptive use. “Both delaying sex and … being more responsible and using contraception more carefully and consistently has led to the declines in the teen pregnancy rate,” she said. “We don’t think they’re at odds, or that we’re giving conflicting messages to our youth.”