Christina Voight considers herself lucky, though she spent the first three years of her son's life in prison. She managed to regain custody of him, at a time when many imprisoned mothers nationwide are being stripped of their parental rights.
"Women are losing their children right and left," said Voight, who now works for a group advocating criminal justice reforms. "We talk about violation of human rights in Third World countries, but we don't look in our own back yard."
Advocacy groups who work with imprisoned women say proceedings to terminate parental rights have become more common in the past few years as a consequence of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, passed by Congress in 1997. Even critics of the act say it has a worthy goal -- to promote adoptions of children who would otherwise languish in foster care without a permanent home.
There is agreement that termination makes sense if an imprisoned mother has been abusive or is serving a long sentence. But advocacy groups say there have been heartbreaking consequences for some mothers who deserve to keep their children. The act directs state governments to start termination proceedings once the parent of a child in foster care has been in prison at least 15 months.
"Even if women have relatively short sentences for nonviolent offenses -- if they don't have family members to step in, they lose their kids," said Joanne Archibald of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers.
Most of the estimated 200,000 children with incarcerated mothers live with a grandparent or other relative, generally exempting them from the threat of termination. But advocacy groups say about 10 percent of these children are in foster care because their mothers have no relatives able to take care of them.
Neither federal nor private agencies have compiled nationwide statistics on how many prisoners have lost their parental rights. However, Philip Genty, a Columbia University law professor, said there is no question that termination proceedings involving imprisoned mothers have increased, primarily because the federal act limits the discretion of state child-protection agencies.
"It sweeps very broadly if it kicks in after only 15 months," he said. "Termination is certainly appropriate in some cases, but some of these women may be very good mothers, and the child's interests wouldn't be served by severing that relationship."
Voight initially had little chance to develop a close relationship with her son, Lance. She gave birth to him in July 1998 shortly after starting a 4-to-8-year sentence at a women's prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y., for an arson conviction that she bitterly contested. Lance was placed in a foster home soon after his birth; Voight said she later learned that conditions in the home were abysmal.
When authorities commenced proceedings to terminate Voight's parental rights and seek an adoptive home for Lance, she was able to obtain legal assistance -- something many imprisoned women find difficult. After complex legal wrangling, the state halted the termination process and allowed Lance to live in a group home run by Hour Children, a New York City program that seeks to help incarcerated women preserve their families.
Over the next three years, until her release in December 2001, Voight was able to receive frequent visits from Lance and watch him overcome early developmental problems. They now live together in an Hour Children residence in Queens; she works in Manhattan for a criminal-justice reform project run by the Open Society Institute.
Now applying to law school, Voight hopes to be part of an effort to make the Adoption and Safe Families Act more flexible and to delay the timetable for starting termination proceedings. She also wants to encourage "open adoptions," enabling mothers who do relinquish parental rights to remain in regular contact with their children.
Once parental rights are terminated, it is usually impossible for a mother to get that judgment reversed. And even if adoptive parents allow a birth mother to stay in touch with her child, they can cut off that contact without repercussions, advocacy groups say.
Voight, while at Bedford Hills, used her firsthand legal experience to help run workshops for fellow inmates struggling to maintain ties with their children. "Most of these women weren't being represented in court," Voight said. "We taught them to be lawyers, to advocate for themselves."
Among Voight's mentors at Bedford Hills was Kathy Boudin, a former leader of the radical Weather Underground who remains imprisoned for her role in a 1981 armored-car robbery. Boudin -- whose son, Chesa, recently was named a Rhodes Scholar -- has co-authored a handbook for incarcerated women whose children are in foster care. The handbook gives advice to women who are considering voluntarily surrendering their parental rights. For women who want to fight a termination proceeding, the handbook urges them to document their efforts to stay in touch with their children and to draw up detailed plans for the children's welfare.
"The byword is to maintain contact by writing, calling, whatever," said Sue Jacobs, who runs a legal aid center for poor families. "Even if a foster parent won't accept calls, try to have someone else make the calls from another location."
Jacobs said the federal adoption act puts imprisoned mothers at a disadvantage by rewarding states financially for moving children out of foster care into adoptive homes. "There's a disincentive to view the moms in a favorable light," Jacobs said. "Maybe adoption is good, maybe not. But we don't have the patience or resources as a society to look at all the complexities."
One of the nation's largest child-protection agencies, New York City's Administration for Children's Services, launched a prison visitation program in 2000 aimed at preserving parent-child bonds. The agency's communications director, Kathleen Carlson, said the program encourages imprisoned parents to stay involved in their children's upbringing so that "kids don't have to feel they've lost their moms and dads."
Carlson noted that the federal adoption act allows imprisoned women to seek exemptions from termination. However, Martha Raimon of the New York-based Women's Prison Association said child-protection agencies in many states don't routinely encourage such efforts.
"Instead of looking closely at the circumstances, agencies push the button for termination," she said. "It's faster, it's cleaner, it doesn't take as much work. I'm afraid we're sucking large numbers of children and parents down a black hole who otherwise could have maintained their family ties."
Raimon, who has worked with imprisoned mothers for six years, said most of them yearn to continue their role as a parent. "There's a lot of regret over time spent away from their children, and the motivation to fix that is very, very strong," she said. "Especially where there has been a lot of contact, a lot of visits at the prison, it's just heartbreaking when parental rights are terminated."