Speaking of Women's Rights: Mothers Sentenced to Lose their Children

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Mothers Sentenced to Lose their Children

by Lillian M. Hewko

Unless you live in a hole, you likely know that the U.S. now imprisons more people than any other nation. Unless you live in that same hole, you likely know that poverty is on the rise and that social inequity is at its greatest ever. As “Occupy Wall Street” has shown us, more and more people are realizing that the U.S. economic system is just plain unjust.

With this information, how many of us are willing to take the logical steps to realize that the rise in our prison population is not due to increased violence, that our communities are not actually safer, and instead, that our nation has become complacent with criminalizing poverty? National stories have highlighted the most aggressive prosecutions against black mothers (black women along with Latina women, are twice as likely to face poverty as white women due to various social factors). Recently, Raquel Nelson was found guilty by an all white jury for vehicular manslaughter when her son was killed by a hit-and-run drunk driver—all she did was walk across the street. Kelley Williams-Bolar, and homeless mother Tonya McDowell, were each arrested for using false addresses to enroll their children in better schools. These prosecutions continue largely in the same vein as our racialized war on drugs that disproportionately prosecutes non-whites for their drug use and/or addiction.

You may be unaware that women comprise the fastest growing population in prison. In Washington state, the rate of incarceration for women tripled from 1995-2005. It is estimated that 85% of these women are mothers. At the time of confinement, over half of these mothers were the primary caregivers of children under 18 years old. Most often, when relative placements are not available, children end up in foster care. Because of existing child welfare laws and poor access to legal information and representation, serving one’s sentence can mean permanently losing her children. Federal laws require states to terminate the parent-child relationship when a child has been in foster care for at least 15 months. Legal Voice has heard from women who have no idea what their rights are and who have not been afforded the right to be present at the hearing where their children have been taken away. Many pregnant and parenting women in prison—most of whom are non-violent first-time offenders serving short sentences—are being separated from their children unnecessarily and involuntarily.

Further troubling are statistics that reveal pathways to incarceration for these women that are complex, and often rooted in issues of sexual and physical violence. Instead of being treated for trauma, depression, addiction and other injuries of violence, these women have been displaced into the criminal justice system.

Sadly, with all of this information, it appears that we have come down with a case of cognitive dissonance. Locking up less people would require taking true steps towards alleviating many social ills: lack of employment, housing, food, education, and healthcare (including mental health services). These ills are much easier to stomach if we place the blame on individuals. Once they are locked up, we are then excused for our behavior of neglect and disregard for the lives of incarcerated individuals.

As reproductive rights advocates striving for true reproductive freedom, we must challenge our nation’s devaluation of motherhood for incarcerated women, who are predominately poor and/or women of color. As an Equal Justice Works fellow at Legal Voice, my aim is to raise awareness around incarcerated mother’s issues, create access to legal information, and advocate for child welfare laws and alternatives to sentencing that better address the needs of these vulnerable families. We now have significant evidence that maintaining contact with one’s incarcerated parent improves a child’s emotional response to their parent’s incarceration and supports parent-child attachment. It also lowers the likelihood of recidivism among incarcerated parents. I hope you will join me by learning more about and sharing this issue, so that we can help work to keep families together, and in turn, help re-build our communities.