Unintended Victims: Children of Incarcerated Parents – Seeking Solutions

March 10, 2015

Stoneleigh Fellow Kathleen Creamer testifies to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Human Services Committee on March 10, 2015.

‘Good morning, members of the Pennsylvania House Human Services Committee. I thank you for the opportunity to be here today.

My name is Kathleen Creamer, and I am an attorney in the Family Advocacy Unit at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. In my current role and formerly as a Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow, I worked closely with the Pennsylvania Prison Society to advocate for policies that address the needs of children of incarcerated parents.  The Prison Society convenes the Working Group to Enhance Services to Incarcerated Women, a multi-disciplinary, cross-system workgroup that has endeavored for the past decade to ensure high-quality services and support to children of incarcerated parents and their families.

In partnership with the Prison Society, 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 was made possible by Rep. Parker in the House and Sen. Greenleaf in the Senate, who sponsored resolutions calling for a study on this growing but invisible issue. Almost forty stakeholders and experts from across the Commonwealth served on the Advisory Committee to the Joint State Government Commission, whose report has been held up as a model nationwide for its comprehensive approach to addressing the needs of our children. The report brought light to the experiences of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania’s children, children whose unique needs are all too often ignored or misunderstood. It included dozens of recommendations for improving the lives of these children, including several proposed legislative changes. Two key pieces of legislation were introduced as a result of that work, and I would like to focus my testimony on this legislation and why it is necessary to meet the needs of the Commonwealth’s children.

The Joint State Government Commission report included legislative recommendations, also sponsored by Rep. Parker and Sen. Greenleaf, to address the needs 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. Senator Greenleaf has introduced this legislation as Senate Bill 163, which is currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee. A companion bill has not yet been introduced in the House.

The other legislative change recommended by the Joint State Government Committee addresses the needs of children at the point of a parent’s arrest. Currently, there is no clear protocol in our Commonwealth to protect the needs of children who are present during the arrest of their parent, or who may be at school during a parent’s arrest, only to come home to an empty house. There is a high risk of trauma to children who witness the arrest of a parent, and there should be a clear plan for addressing their needs and ensuring they have somewhere safe to stay, particularly when their custodial parent is arrested. Senate Bill 163, in addition to legislation introduced this week in the House by Representative Cherelle Parker, would go a long way toward mitigating the impact of a parent’s arrest on children. Both pieces of legislation would require that law enforcement officers inquire upon arrest whether any child’s safety or well-being may be at risk as a result of the arrest, and further require the police to define a clear protocol for ensuring the safety of a child in such situations. This protocol would require the input of the police and the Department of Human Services, which we hope will go a long way toward ensuring that parents are empowered to make safe plans for their children at the time of their arrest and that foster care is avoided unless truly necessary.

Finally, the Joint State Government 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 successfully worked alongside Philadelphia Department of Human Services and the Philadelphia Prison System to ensure the best possible outcomes for children of incarcerated parents and their families. We developed a joint policy requiring high quality services for children of incarcerated parents in foster care, and launched video-conferencing between the jail and DHS to ensure parental participation in all meetings regarding their children in foster care. 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 deeply appreciate this committee’s attention to the urgent needs of children of incarcerated parents, and urge your consideration of the legislation that is currently pending to address these needs.’

Originally published by Community Legal Services.