Testimony of Kathleen Creamer on "The Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children: Needs and Responsive Services" Hearing of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Democratic Policy Committee on March 30, 2012

 

Good morning, members of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee. I thank you and Representative Cherelle Parker for the opportunity to be here today.

My name is Kathleen Creamer, and I am a Stoneleigh Fellow at Community Legal Services. I am honored to have been part of the advisory committee that contributed the Joint State Government Commission’s thorough and thoughtful report on children of incarcerated parents in this Commonwealth. The report brought light to the experiences of hundreds of thousands of children, children whose unique needs are all too often ignored or misunderstood.

Today I would like to speak with you about the experiences of some of our most vulnerable children of incarcerated parents, children of incarcerated parents in foster care. The good news is that most children of incarcerated parents do not enter foster care; most are able to stay with another parent, or with relatives. But for the estimated 1 in 10 children of incarcerated parents who do not have a family resource, foster care is the only option. Children in foster care are uniquely vulnerable because they face the most serious of consequences: the permanent severance of their relationship with their incarcerated parent through termination of parental rights.

Our committee looked carefully at the law and how it impacts children of incarcerated parents in foster care. These children are subject to the mandates of the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, which requires, with few exceptions, that the child welfare agency seek termination of parental rights after the child has been in foster care for 15 months. This means that for most parents who have children in foster care and sentences longer than 15 months, termination of parental rights is a strong likelihood, if not an inevitability. As an attorney representing incarcerated parents in the child welfare system, I have seen first hand how this requirement can devastate families. The reality is that despite a parent’s strong commitment to caring for her child and a loving parent-child bond, a child in foster care may forever lose her relationship with her incarcerated parent due solely to the passage of time.

Many states, recognizing the potentially devastating impact this strict timeline can have on a child, have clarified in their statutes that incarceration alone cannot be a basis to terminate parental rights. Still other states have changed their statutes to offer the child welfare agency flexibility in the 15 month timeline when it is in the best interest of the child. Our report recommends legislation that follows both of these approaches, by modifying the Adoption Act to clarify that incarceration alone is not a basis to terminate parental rights, and also by modifying the Juvenile Act to clarify that parental incarceration may, consistent with the best interests of the child, be an exception to the 15 month termination of parental rights filing requirement.

Finally, our report also noted a lack of cross-system communication and collaboration between corrections and child welfare systems. This leads to a lack of coordinated efforts and services on behalf of these children, with significant needs going unmet. As a Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow, I have been working alongside Commissioner Ambrose and Commissioner Giorla to help the Department of Human Services and the Philadelphia Prison System work together to ensure the best possible outcomes for children of incarcerated parents and their families. I hope that this work will serve as a model for the type of collaboration that is possible and needed statewide.

Thank you again for this opportunity. I know I speak for all the members of the advisory committee when I say that I hope this report is just the beginning of a statewide conversation about how we can ensure better outcomes for children of incarcerated parents.

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