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Parenthood lost: How incarcerated parents are losing their children forever

Mothers and fathers stripped of their parental rights while behind bars is “the family separation crisis that no one knows about,” one advocate said. (Video: Marshall Project / NBC Left Field)

Lori Lynn Adams was a mother of four living in poverty when Hurricane Floyd struck North Carolina in 1999, flooding her trailer home and destroying her children’s pageant trophies and baby pictures. No stranger to moneymaking scams, Adams was convicted of filing a fraudulent disaster-relief claim with FEMA for a property she did not own. She also passed dozens of worthless checks to get by.

Adams served two year-long prison stints for these “blue-collar white-collar crimes,” as she calls them. Halfway through her second sentence, with her children — three toddlers and a ­14-year-old — temporarily under county supervision, Adams said she got a phone call from a family court attorney. Her parental rights, he informed her, were being irrevocably terminated.

Before going to prison, Adams had sometimes drifted from one boyfriend to another, leaving her kids with a babysitter, and she didn’t always have enough food in the house. But she was not charged with any kind of child abuse, neglect or endangerment. Still, at a hearing that took place 300 miles from the prison, which she couldn’t attend because officials wouldn’t transport her there, she lost her children. Adams’s oldest daughter went to live with her father, and her other three kids were put up for adoption. She was banned from seeing them again.

“I know what I did was wrong, and I had to pay the price for my actions,” Adams, now 50, said. “But this is the most extreme price there is.”

Mothers and fathers who have a child placed in foster care because they are incarcerated — but who have not been accused of child abuse, neglect, endangerment, or even drug or alcohol use — are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than those who physically or sexually assault their kids, according to a Marshall Project analysis of approximately 3 million child-welfare cases nationally.

In about 1 in 8 of these cases, incarcerated parents lose their parental rights, regardless of the seriousness of their offenses, according to the analysis of records maintained by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services between 2006 and 2016. That rate has held steady over time.

Female prisoners, whose children are five times more likely than those of male inmates to end up in foster care, have their rights taken away most often.

To some adoption proponents, immediately finding children a nurturing home should always be the priority. Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School, said that while some parents turn their lives around when they leave prison, their children should not have to wait for a family.

“You never know if they’ll just go right back to a life of crime,” she said, “and kids deserve better than that.”

A growing contingent of family advocates, however, say that removing children from their birth families is a destructive act in itself . A prison stint alone, they say, should not be grounds for severing the bond between birth parent and child, which can lead to profound negative effects on children’s mental and physical health.

“The right to your children is the most fundamental one you have, but we strip it from incarcerated parents so casually,” said Kathleen Creamer, a family attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. “This is the family separation crisis that no one knows about.”

That may be about to change. Since 2010, a handful of states including New York, Washington and Illinois have passed legislation to help mothers and fathers in prison keep their children. And in the coming months, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) plans to introduce in Congress an “incarcerated parents’ bill of rights,” which she said in an interview would make sure that most imprisoned parents who maintain a role in their kids’ lives do not have their rights terminated.

The Marshall Project estimate is probably a conservative one because it includes only cases in which a parent being locked up was marked as the sole reason for a child being in foster care. For many of the two dozen parents — mostly poor mothers — interviewed for this story, other factors were involved beyond their incarceration, such as past drug use, leaving their children home alone or not having a suitable relative for them to stay with.

But in every case, it was these parents’ incarceration that made them unavailable and, in the eyes of family court, irredeemable.

Terminating parents' rights

Over the past few decades, the number of imprisoned parents in the United States has skyrocketed. From 1991 to 2007, it jumped by more than 357,000. Today, more than half of the 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails have minor children.

All the while, lawmakers have taken a tougher stance on troubled and absent parents.

In 1997, with first lady Hillary Clinton’s vocal support, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which mandated that federally funded state child-welfare programs begin termination of parental rights in most cases in which children had been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months. The measure’s supporters hoped it would pave the way to adoption for kids who had been languishing in temporary, often unstable homes while their biological parents tried to kick a drug habit or find housing.

The legislation also created bonuses for states that facilitate adoptions. Since 1998, the federal government has doled out more than $639 million in these rewards.

But the law’s largely unintended consequence was to make incarcerated parents, who now spend well more than 15 months on average behind bars because of the tough prison sentences of the same era, more vulnerable to losing their children.

According to the Marshall Project analysis, at least 32,000 incarcerated parents since 2006 had their children permanently taken from them without being accused of physical or sexual abuse, though other factors, often related to their poverty, may have been involved. Of those, nearly 5,000 appear to have lost their parental rights because of their imprisonment alone.

No significant racial disparities were found in the relative rates at which these parents’ rights are terminated. But given that African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated — 1 in 10 black children have a parent behind bars, compared with about 1 in 60 white children — this phenomenon affects them in outsize numbers.

Family court cases are complicated, all the more so when parents are incarcerated. Inmates are by definition absent, and they sometimes have a history of other child-welfare disputes. Whether to terminate their parental rights is a multifaceted decision made by judges on a case-by-case basis, and the legal grounds for doing so vary by state.

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Yet the ways that other parents with child-welfare cases can stave off that outcome — spending time with their children regularly, showing up for court hearings, taking parenting classes, being employed, having stable housing and paying child support to reimburse the government for the costs of foster care — are all next to impossible from confinement. Corrections departments are not obligated to drive inmates to family court, and county child-welfare agencies rarely have the resources to bring children to faraway prisons for visits with Mom or Dad.

Judges, in turn, sometimes make the life-altering decision to terminate imprisoned parents’ rights without meeting them.

“There’s an impression among some in our community that incarcerated folks don’t deserve to have a family,” said Judge Anthony Capizzi, immediate past president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

Malissa Gamble, a Philadelphia mother of two, went to prison for nearly 15 months in 2003 on a parole violation stemming from a charge of receiving stolen property. Within weeks of her release, there was a hearing scheduled to consider terminating her parental rights.

At one point, the judge said, “The mother in this case is not available because she is incarcerated,” according to Gamble.

“No she’s not! The mother is sitting right here! I’m here!” she said she shouted from her seat in the courtroom.

Because Gamble was freed in time to make it there, she was able to keep her kids.

Parenting in poverty

Many advocates of adoption say that what’s best for the children of incarcerated parents is to find them a “forever family,” and quickly.

“Most of these incarcerated women have drug problems, mental illnesses, difficulty getting jobs and housing. The obstacles to them being able to turn their lives around are enormous,” said James Dwyer, a law professor at the College of William & Mary. “I don’t think you can hold a child hostage to what should exist in a fair world.”

Foster children who are younger than 2 years old, considered to be in the most critical “attachment stage” of development, should almost immediately be adopted, Dwyer said. And even if their incarcerated parent gets released, they shouldn’t have their lives disturbed again just as new family bonds are taking hold.

The children of Lori Lynn Adams, the mother in North Carolina, remain uncertain about whether staying with her would have been good for them.

In middle school, the youngest, Holly, became curious about whom she got her looks from and found Adams on Facebook. She decided to break the rules of the closed adoption and go with her sister Kristina to visit their birth mom, whom they had last seen when they were babies.

“When we got there, [Adams] just started right away calling me her baby and her daughter and said she was so proud of me. But I was like, ‘I don’t know you,’ ” said Holly, who is 20 now. Even though being separated from her biological family is painful, she said, she doesn’t find Adams, who still has trouble providing for herself, dependable.

But Ashley, the oldest of Adams’s kids at 31, who went to live with her father instead of getting adopted, said her siblings were too young at the time to truly know their mother. “Every night, every holiday, every birthday of theirs, she cries for her children,” she said.

Amanda Alexander, executive director of the Detroit Justice Center and a senior research scholar at the University of Michigan Law School, sees the dichotomy between what’s best for parents and what’s best for kids as a false one. The child-welfare system, she said, certainly must find young people a stable home. But it should also help their mothers and fathers stay in their lives in a productive way, along with siblings and other relatives.

“In most cases, kids are better off by all kinds of metrics when they have a relationship with their birth families,” she said.

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To Alexander and other parent advocates working to change child-welfare laws, there are a lot of complicated mothers and fathers who recover from mistakes and can provide the best home for their children.

In 2010, New York carved out an exception to the 15-month timeline for incarcerated parents who are making efforts to maintain meaningful relationships with their children in foster care. Now, judges statewide must consider the obstacles that imprisonment poses for these parents before deciding to terminate their rights.

Washington state in 2013 also added flexibility to the time limit and required that incarcerated parents be informed of their family court hearings and have visitation opportunities with their children, except in cases of abuse or when it’s otherwise not in the kids’ best interests.

To some, though, the reform efforts don’t go far enough.

Dorothy Roberts, an expert on race, gender and family law at the University of Pennsylvania, said the underlying problem in the child-welfare system is decision-makers’ bias against poor parents, especially incarcerated mothers of color. The just thing to do as a society, she said, would be to better support these families with affordable housing, food assistance, drug treatment and child care, including in prisons.

“Instead of actually responding to the struggles of poor families . . . we’ve decided that it’s simpler to take their children away,” she said.

At the very least, said Corey Best, a fate so stark as losing one’s children should not be irreversible.

In 2004, Best was in a bad place: a New Orleans jail cell, facing an aggravated battery charge after getting in a fight with a drug dealer. Before then, he said, he had been close with his 3-year-old son, Corey Jr., practicing counting and reading with him before bedtime. But based on Best’s history of substance abuse and arrests, plus his six months of incarceration and the resulting lack of contact with his son, his parental rights were terminated.

“I needed drug treatment and services to be offered to me while I was in jail,” said Best. “But I love my son.”

Best, 45, has been sober for more than a decade and is a successful consultant and public speaker on child welfare. But he still isn’t allowed to contact Corey Jr., whose teenage years he has only glimpsed on Facebook.

Each year on his son’s birthday, he buys a card, writes a thought or aspiration, and places it in a special box. Corey Jr.’s adoptive mother, who declined to comment for this story, indicated through a friend that she might be willing to introduce the boy to his biological father, but only after he turns 18.

Meanwhile, Best said, he’s devoting himself to his second son, Corvin, an artistic and athletic 9-year-old who loves making paper airplanes.

“Maybe this is God’s way,” he said, “of showing me some kind of redemption.”

Graphic by Anna Flagg. Additional reporting by Alysia Santo.

Published in partnership with The Marshall Project , a nonprofit newsroom covering the U.S. criminal justice system.