December 10, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
I return now to the Washington Post article I wrote about last Friday (Washington Post, 12/3/18).
The article’s a pretty long one and it covers an important issue – that of the parental rights of prison inmates. Put simply, it reports on a Marshall Project finding that many parents lose their children solely because they’ve gone to prison. That is, there’s been no finding of abuse or neglect, but only that the parent is in prison, regardless of the length of the sentence.
To the extent that actually bears out, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. The WaPo piece used some suspicious weasel words that make me want to look closer at the actual findings of the Marshall Project. Still, parental rights are too important to allow a conviction for a minor offense and a short period behind bars to take away.
But that’s the good news about the article. The bad news is sadly predictable, this being the Washington Post. The bad news is that, like the system it criticizes, the Post piece all but ignores fathers. Worse, in doing so, it thwarts its own mission – the reduction of incarceration as a factor in mothers losing their parental rights.
That’s the more remarkable because in just its third paragraph the article refers to a teenaged girl being taken from her prison-bound mother and given to her father. Ironically, that simple act would solve most of the problems the article raises.
Recall that, back in 2006, the Urban Institute found that, in over half the instances in which a child was taken from its mother by state child welfare authorities due to abuse or neglect, the father wasn’t contacted as a possible placement. That preference for foster care over father care on the part of CPS is problematic in several ways, including its frank illegality.
First, fathers supposedly have rights and should be considered the very first alternative when Mom loses a child even temporarily. It is simply not the prerogative of the child welfare system to decide whether or not fathers are allowed to exercise their parental rights. Fathers should be contacted every time a mother loses a child. If one can’t provide an appropriate home then the agency can look further afield.
Second, if Dad is a proper placement, the state’s taxpayers save money. States don’t have to pay fathers a cent for caring for their own children, but pay foster parents around $700 per month per child.
Third, fathers tend to have blood relatives who have an interest in the child and likely provide a much more familiar environment in which the child can live and thrive than would a foster family. The trauma of being taken from Mom would be lessened and, generally speaking, kinship care is better for kids than is foster care.
Finally, the Court of Appeals for the federal Ninth Circuit has ruled that fathers have a constitutional right to be informed when their children are taken from their mothers due to abuse or neglect. Indeed, failure to do so by CPS is actionable under federal civil rights statutes.
What the Post failed to notice is that, when Mom goes to prison, the only reason to address the issue of her parental rights is foster care and adoption. No child whose parents retain their parental rights can be adopted, so the whole point of terminating Mom’s rights is aimed at one thing – adoption.
But what if Dad were contacted and provided a suitable home? There’d be no need for foster care and Mom could do her time secure in the knowledge that she didn’t have to fight a termination suit long-distance. Once she got out, Dad would still have custody, but Mom could make the necessary efforts to rehabilitate herself as a parent in the eyes of the juvenile court and regain at least some contact with little Andy or Jenny. Indeed, she might be able to regain substantial parenting time.
What’s not to like about that approach to the children of parents in prison? It saves the state money, maintains contact between the child and its biological parents and frees up one set of adoptive parents to adopt a child who needs adopting rather than one who doesn’t. As I’ve said many times before, qualified adoptive parents are a scarce resource, nowhere nearly as numerous as the children who need to be adopted. Every time we force adoption on a child who doesn’t need it (because he/she has a capable parent), we deny adoption to a child who does need it.
Sensible and straightforward as is the idea of simply contacting the fathers of children whose mothers are headed to prison, it escaped the Post altogether. It seems that, when it comes to certain major news media, the idea of fathers as a benefit to children – or indeed to anyone – is an anathema.