Interview: How Mothers Jailed in the US Lose Custody of Their Children

02 / 10 / 2018

As the number of women locked up in the US grows, Oklahoma has the grim distinction of being the state incarcerating more women per capita than any other. Most women in jail have yet to be convicted of a crime – they’re being held until trial – and the vast majority are mothers. jasmine Sankofa speaks with Amy Braunschweiger about the obstacles these mothers face trying to keep in contact with, and keep custody of, their children while behind bars.

Tell me more about these women.

In the US, about 80 percent of women in jail are mothers with young children. Many are single moms, providing primary care. Most are in jail charged with minor offenses and have not been convicted. Yet jailed moms can be separated from their children for months on end, sometimes longer.

Black women make up 44 percent of the women’s jail population, according to the most recent available data, but Black people are only 13 percent of the US population. Studies show that women in jails and prisons have extensive histories of substance dependence, trauma, and mental illness. Some of the moms I interviewed were in jail for reasons inextricably linked to untreated substance use disorders and poverty.

One woman I spoke with, Sonya, was the sole provider for her three children and granddaughter. She said when she needed diapers or clothes for the children she would steal and end up in jail. She also struggled with drug dependence and couldn’t find the support she needed. Instead, she would come out of jail owing fines and court costs she couldn’t pay. She said that when she couldn’t pay, a warrant would be issued, and she ended up in jail again.

The last time she was booked into jail, in 2013, she was there for seven months before she was finally released into a diversion program, where women can receive housing and other types of support instead of going to prison. She received the type of support she needed to keep from cycling in and out of jail.

I’m assuming Sonya, and many of these women, can’t afford to pay their bail so they can go free until their trial?

Oftentimes they can’t afford to pay bail so they stay in jail. When it comes to setting bail, judges often do not take into consideration family ties and a person’s ability to pay the bail amount. For many women, bail is set at an amount beyond their means. People aren’t often released on their own recognizance with a promise to come back to court. So if they don’t have money to make bail, they will sit in jail away from their children, hoping the bail amount gets reduced. Many end up copping a plea to get out.

So women plead guilty just to be released from jail?

In an effort to get out, moms told us they would do anything. Some were worried that their children might end up in foster care. So taking a guilty plea, even if you’re innocent, wrongly charged, or the state’s case is weak, is sometimes worth the future headache. It’s better than being separated.

Waiting in jail for trial can be even worse if there’s a custody proceeding or your children are in foster care. One mom we spoke with, April, lost custody of her eldest daughter while she was in jail.

Was she notified that her child was being taken away?

She said that she didn’t receive any notice from family court, even though she was supposed to. Her aunt called her once and told her that her daughter’s paternal grandparents were seeking custody. April didn’t think they could get custody, but they did. And she said she wasn’t given the opportunity to weigh in. When April got out of jail, her daughter was gone, already living with her grandparents.

If a mom who is in jail has a child in foster care, she also may be out of the loop and not transported to juvenile court hearings concerning her child. She might have a hard time getting in touch with the child welfare caseworker. These moms want information on their children. They want to take part in custody decisions. But they’re not always included.

Why is that?

Courts and jails aren’t working together to make sure moms are notified and transported from jail to court.

Also, Oklahoma child welfare policies are very vague around communication between caseworkers and jailed parents. Some policies say face-to-face communication is required, others say contact is arranged through case managers at the jail. So moms may not hear from caseworkers directly and can experience delays in receiving information about their children. Without looping moms in, they are not able to demand visitation or take part in decisions about what home their child should be placed in.

How do moms get their children back?

If their children are in foster care, typically moms agree to a reunification plan. This lays out certain conditions parents must meet and services they must receive, like taking parenting classes, undergoing substance use treatment, or a psychological evaluation. Moms also need to maintain a relationship with their child because child welfare services and the court will evaluate the bond between a parent and their child.

What happens to this reunification process when you’re in jail?

While parents are in jail, the reunification process is at a standstill. Most jails don’t have parenting classes or other services. It costs money to place phone calls or video chat with your children. Visitation isn’t being facilitated. And visitation policies within jails can be very restricted. Most jails we reached out to in Oklahoma do not allow in-person visitation. Some prevent children from visiting. Some mothers might end up not seeing or even talking with their children for a very long time. There’s little they can do about it.

Why is this?

Jails, in theory, are supposed to house people for short periods of time. Most people in jail have not been convicted of a crime and many will get out after a few days. But some people remain in jails for weeks, months, a year, or longer.

Are there are lot of expenses for these women?

Moms leaving jails can end up with a bill that comes to thousands of dollars. Some jails in Oklahoma charge people who are locked up between $15 and $48 a day, like it’s a hotel. Ironically, they couldn’t afford bail, but now are billed for staying in jail. If they saw a doctor or nurse while in jail, they’ll have a bill for that. If they end up on probation, they will likely have to pay $40 a month for supervision.

For someone already struggling to get by, these fees and costs are too much to shoulder. And like with Sonya, may lead them back to jail when they can’t pay.

There are also costs associated with getting your children back – like parenting classes, a psychological evaluation, drug testing, etc. Sometimes moms will receive some assistance in paying for these services but if there’s no money to pay for these services, moms will need to come up with money on their own. If they can’t comply with a reunification plan, their parental rights are at risk.

Is there any truth to the idea that it’s better for children to be separated from their moms?

Just because a mom is accused of a crime, doesn’t mean her children should be taken away. If there is a concern about a child’s safety, then that’s a decision for a court to make and moms need to be a part of that conversation. Separating families is doing a disservice to moms and to their children, who have a right to be connected to their family, their culture, and their community.

A child visiting their parent behind bars can alleviate separation anxiety and feelings of abandonment. Moms and their children shouldn’t be punished just because a mom is arrested.

What do you want to see changed?

We want courts to take into consideration the parental and primary caretaker status of people when making decisions about bail and sentencing. Alternatives to arrest and incarceration should be expanded. People shouldn’t be arrested and taken into the system in the first place if what they’re arrested for points to efforts to survive poverty or to untreated substance use disorders, trauma, and mental illness. And there needs to be more resources like housing, drug treatment, and mental health services available to women earlier on so that they aren’t funneled into jail.

Ultimately, if they aren’t in jail, family separation can be avoided.

Jailed parents should be made aware of and be involved in all custody-related decisions. And parents should not have to pay to receive services they need to reunify with their children.

We met a lot of moms who benefitted from diversion and reentry programs. They were able to get housing. They were able to regain custody of their children. They were able to find jobs. Sonya is in recovery, she lives with her children and granddaughter, and she works for a non-profit organization. She is stable. Sonya credits her success to Women in Recovery, a diversion program for prison-bound women in Tulsa County. She was finally able to get the support she needed.

Human Rights Watch.Interview: How Mothers Jailed in the US Lose Custody of Their Children. © 2018 by Human Rights Watch.

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