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Does Parental Incarceration Increase a Child's Risk for Foster Care Placement?

National Institute of Justice Journal
Date Published
November 1, 2006

Common wisdom holds that children are at greater risk of being placed in the foster care system when a parent is incarcerated.[1] But interim findings from an ongoing NIJ-funded study reveal that there may be no such correlation for mothers; in fact, many of the mothers had lost custody of their children before they were incarcerated—in some cases, as many as 3 years earlier.

The study, which was jointly funded by grants from NIJ, the Chicago Community Trust, the Open Society Institute, and the Russell Sage Foundation, was awarded to researchers at the University of California and the University of Chicago. Researchers are focusing on mothers who were incarcerated in Illinois State prisons and the Cook County (Chicago) jail from 1990 to 2000. They are matching the mothers’ incarceration data with data about their childrens’ foster care placement.[2]The study is examining what—if any—connection exists between a parent’s incarceration and a child’s risk of being placed in foster care.

Which Came First?

Researchers found that slightly more than one-fourth (27 percent) of the mothers who had been incarcerated had a child who had been placed in foster care at some point during the child’s life. And almost the same percentage of children whose mothers were incarcerated reported having been placed in foster care at some point.

But surprisingly, researchers found, the mother’s incarceration was not the reason the child was placed in foster care.

In fact, in almost three-quarters of the cases, children were placed in foster care prior to the mother’s first period of incarceration. And in more than 40 percent of those cases, the children entered foster care as many as 3 years before their mothers went to jail.

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

This finding is consistent with the results of an earlier, more limited study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice. There, researchers compared the foster care records of children who first entered the child welfare system in New York State in fiscal year 1997 with their mother’s criminal history records. Most mothers in the Vera study were found to have lost custody before they were arrested or went to jail. A mother’s incarceration overlapped with the child’s stay in foster care in only 11 percent of the cases.

For the children who were in foster care for 30 consecutive days while their mother was incarcerated, 9 in 10 had been placed in foster care prior to their mother’s incarceration. The large majority of children—85 percent—were placed in foster care before the mother was arrested on charges that led to her incarceration.

A Big Step in the Right Direction

The interim finding from the Chicago data represents a significant development in the study of the relationship between foster care and parental incarceration. Until now, no study of this magnitude has focused exclusively on the status of the children of incarcerated parents. Instead, researchers have focused primarily on the incarcerated parent; data on children and their custody status was incidental to their inquiries.

In addition, several factors have impeded research on the children: small sample sizes, a reluctance on the part of families and caregivers to provide information that might disrupt formal or informal custody arrangements, and insufficient funding and resources to locate and track children over time.

Researchers from the Universities of California and Chicago will continue to examine other questions posed by the relationships between child welfare and parental incarceration, such as:

  • Do families in which the mother is incarcerated before the child is placed in foster care differ from families in which the child is removed before the parent is incarcerated?
  • What is the relationship between the mother’s incarceration and the likelihood of a child returning home from foster care or the number of foster care placements?
  • What effect does the mother’s incarceration have on termination of parental rights?
  • What is the relationship between the offense that resulted in the mother’s incarceration and the types of maltreatment that prompted child welfare services to intervene?
  • What are the similarities and differences between the mother’s type of incarceration (jail vs. prison) and the above child welfare issues?

Researchers hope that answers to these queries will illuminate the crossroads of the foster care and criminal justice systems and yield information that will have important implications for practitioners and policymakers. Data on this nexus will help policymakers estimate Federal and State costs of parental incarceration and the involvement of dependent children in the foster care system. These data will also inform crime prevention and family reunification strategies and strengthen collaborative efforts between the criminal justice and child welfare systems.

About the Author

Marilyn C. Moses is a Social Science Analyst at the National Institute of Justice.

About This Article

This article appeared in NIJ Journal Issue 255, November 2006.

Date Published: November 1, 2006