Parenting, ‘TPR’ and Family Separation

When a judge sentences parents to jail or prison, they must know that they are also sentencing children to family separation through TPR. After TPR, parents lose their rights to visit, care for or even communicate with their children. TPR is akin to a death penalty in family law. And if a parent’s sentence reaches a certain threshold, their children suffer permanent legal separation from their families. How cruel!

TPR, Termination of Parental Rights, skyrocketed after the late nineteen nineties when Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act[ASFA]. The act provides funding for states that file for TPR ‘when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months’. In other words, states get paid for terminating parental tights-family separation.  It should be the other way around- preserve families. Nationally, the average length of incarceration is 24 months. Parents who are incarcerated for more than 15 months are far more likely to reach this threshold.

Because of ASFA, children have lost their families in the name of their ‘safety’. By 2005, there was a 250% increase in TPR among incarcerated parents. ASFA is supposed to protect children, but the U.S. Children’s Bureau found that it sacrifices permanent relationships, which youth need to thrive. Family separation can result in toxic stress, which can permanently harm children’s mental and physical health. TPR is also devastating for parents and the general public, especially since parents who maintain strong family ties are far less likely to return to prison.

In TPR, racial disparities are exacerbated by the disparities in incarceration. Nationally, children of color are 4 times more likely to experience TPR than white children, falling hardest on low-income children. Latinx children are more than 2.5 times more likely.

photo of girl hugging her mother

When incarcerated parents express a desire to reunify with their children, it’s difficult to meet the standards set forth to do so.  Many aren’t able to afford phone calls. COVID-19 made things worse for these families. Prison visitation decreased, as well as access to phone calls and programming. Many parents have fallen ill and still couldn’t make calls or see their kids. Meanwhile that clock is ticking.

Ms. B is a Georgia mother who suffered permanent family separation. When she was incarcerated in 2018, her youngest child entered foster care. Ms. B called her, arranged visits, sent recordings of herself reading, and enrolled in parenting classes, but the state filed for TPR due to the 15/22-months rule. Despite Ms. B’s advocacy, when COVID-19 hit, the prison shut down communication. Although she was only few months from release, she couldn’t keep in touch with her daughter. A judge ordered TPR. In July, she was released. Neither she nor her older children are allowed to contact Ms. B’s youngest child. Because of the timeline, she has found herself in a position that too many mothers of color face: She is fighting the state to have a relationship with her own child.

Lawmakers should proactively protect the rights of children with incarcerated parents. One policy to be considered is that phone calls should be free for family members in prison. Children should be able to call their incarcerated parents, and vice versa to maintain connections and keep parental rights. Families should not have to choose between keeping their parental rights or keeping the lights on.

woman in black shirt looking at the window with her dog

The timeline should be paused when incarceration is involved. Every state must cease the practice of separating families when sentence length is a factor. Family ties should be a primary consideration when handing out sentences to those convicted of certain criminal offenses–across the board.

We watched in horror by seeing families separated at our borders, while not realizing how many times it happens here, to people of color. It is all too often, blatantly unjust and prejudicial to traumatize children and parents. Have you ever heard the desperate screams of a child being taken away from their parent? It is heart-wrenching. Children of color already are at risk for adverse childhood experiences, from birth. To potentially re-traumatize them is unforgivable.

Not one state or agency has not accessed the research, the statistics, centered on disproportion and racial disparity in social services and education. It is extraordinarily clear in the criminal justice system. The U.S. has a horrible history of separating black and brown families, from our founding. You would think that we know better and have learned from the past. Otherwise, dare we ask once again, do black lives matter…yet? These are parents and children whose lives are impacted. All of our lives are impacted. Come on America, have a heart!


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