Incarceration Nation

Mass Incarceration of Single Mothers

Mass incarceration of single mothers is putting thousands of kids into foster care

By April V. Taylor

More than one million women are under the control of the criminal justice system through incarceration, probation, or parole. The number of women who are incarcerated is increasing at almost double the rate of men with many of them having a history of sexual violence, drug dependence, and/or poverty. Many of these women are non-violent offenders who have been swept up in the war on drugs, and their families become collateral damage. These facts all underscore how the American criminal justice system is choosing to punish instead of heal, and the effects of this approach are devastating communities across the country.

A recent article points out that nearly two-thirds of incarcerated women have children under the age of 18, and many of these women are single parents. Although most incarcerated men are fathers, being in prison has a disproportionately tragic effect on women as incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to have their children placed in foster care than incarcerated fathers.

One of the ways the war on drugs exacerbates this situation is that mandatory harsh sentencing laws cause many mothers to have their parental rights terminated while incarcerated. Termination of parental rights is due in large part to the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act that requires social workers to begin termination proceedings to end parental rights of parents whose children have been in foster care for 15 out of the previous 22 months. Once parental rights are terminated, parents no longer have any legal right to their children and are not allowed to contact them.

One incarcerated mother states, “As the clock ticked away, I remained in constant fear wondering which monthly visit would be our last.”

While some states have passed legislation to mitigate the circumstances many incarcerated women face when it comes to their children, more must be done. Our families and communities cannot continue to be left with motherless children by a failed war on drugs and a system that does not do enough to prevent the precursors of violence and poverty that precede many women’s involvement with the criminal justice system.

Naturally Moi, June 9, 2014