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March 29, 2012 Articles

Meeting the Needs of Children with an Incarcerated Parent

By Lynne Reckman, Katie Gates, Meredith Schnug, and Debra Rothstein

The eyes of a child tell an important story. System providers caring for a child whose parent is absent due to incarceration are challenged to look at the circumstances through the eyes of the child and respond to the needs reflected. In the previous Children's Rights Litigation article, "A Voice for the Young Child with an Incarcerated Parent" by Lynne Reckman and Debra Rothstein, the authors promote a mental-health perspective that increases the visibility of children swept into the criminal justice system by virtue of their parent's incarceration. The article makes a strong case for respecting that a parental relationship exists for all children in the absence or the presence of that parent. Acknowledging the significance of the child-parent relationship is the starting point for creating best practices for children. The article also offers the belief that "collaborative and reflective practice within and among the systems involved with children whose parents are incarcerated can contribute to creative problem-solving and fresh new solutions." In that spirit, this follow-up article offers three case studies presented by attorneys/guardians ad litem (GAL) with an accompanying mental-health analysis of each.

Case Study No. 1
Three boys—ages five, two, and one—were placed in foster care following their parents' arrest for shoplifting while the one-year-old was with them. This was not the first time that this family was involved in the criminal justice system. The boys' mother had several outstanding warrants for theft and drugs at the time of this arrest. The father had a criminal history, including a felony conviction for drug trafficking and two counts of child endangering, both three years earlier. When the police raided the family home on the drug-trafficking arrest three years ago, the oldest child, then two years old, was present. Heroin was being sold out of the family home. During the parents' incarceration for these earlier convictions, the paternal grandparents cared for the children with no formal order of custody.

At the time of the current arrest for shoplifting, both parents had been out of jail for six months and were caring for their children themselves. They had their one-year-old with them during the arrest. The parents are back in jail as criminal charges for the shoplifting arrest are proceeding. The children are living together in a licensed foster home.

The grandparents are requesting that the children be placed with them. A complication that led to the children's placement in foster care this time is that the boys' father fled the shoplifting scene and was found hiding in the paternal grandparents' home after the grandparents said they did not know his whereabouts. The father was discovered by a social worker from children's services, who was doing a home study on the grandparents' request for possible placement of the children. The grandparents were thereafter determined not to be appropriate for placement. The grandparents are arguing that they did not know the father was in the home when children's services did the unannounced walkthrough for placement. The attorney/GAL for all three children reports that when the grandparents were caring for the children in the past, they took them to see their parents in jail during previous periods of incarceration. The attorney/GAL describes the children as having a close relationship with their parents and their grandparents. The grandparents currently have weekly, supervised visitation with the children at the children's services visitation center. The children's parents are requesting visitation with their children while in jail.

The attorney/GAL reports that the children have not shown any identified behavior problems in the foster home where they have lived for two months with a single foster mother and no other children. The five-year-old child, Sam, talks about the fun things he has done with his dad, such as going to the park and fishing. The attorney/GAL believes the court will consider ordering custody to the grandparents after they complete counseling to address their enabling their son's behavior. The attorney/GAL raises the question as to whether visitation for Sam with his parents in jail is in his best interest.

Case Study No. 1 Analysis
This case study provides an excellent opportunity for collaboration between criminal justice and mental-health systems, both on a micro/clinical level and a macro/advocacy level. Focusing first on the clinical issues, the family history of multiple criminal offenses and parental incarcerations describes a significant trauma history in the lives of these children. That trauma history includes multiple moves between family members' homes, witnessing adult drug use, and exposure to other criminal elements in the drug-trafficking trade. The issue of moves between family members raises questions from a mental-health perspective as to the primary attachment relationship of the children. Is it with the paternal grandparents or the parents, and what is the quality of that attachment for each child? These questions are important in this case because the answers guide the planning around custody as well as visitation. A mental-health consultation and perhaps a diagnostic assessment of the attachment history for Sam, as well as his siblings, can provide helpful information in this planning process. Understanding the nature of the child's ties to biological family members can help prepare Sam for a parental visit in jail. In this case, if Sam has a positive attachment relationship with his grandparents, their participation in parental visits will help him feel safe.

Unfortunately, Sam at age two and his now one-year-old brother have the shared experience of witnessing their parents' arrest. Seeing a police raid as well as a shoplifting arrest at one and two years old can be a frightening and overwhelming experience. Young children are aware of the chaos, loud noises, and often strong emotions expressed during an arrest. If weapons are drawn, an added measure of fear exists. All this is capped off by the child's parent being abruptly taken away in a police car with no opportunity to say good-bye. At one year of age, a typical child is developmentally in the height of separation anxiety as he or she learns that his or her parents still exist even when they can't be seen. The trauma of a separation by arrest challenges this normal developmental task. A timely mental-health consultation can provide helpful support to the child and his or her caregivers following this kind of trauma. Addressing the child's emotional needs immediately following the trauma works to prevent traumatic feelings from developing into longer-term behavioral issues. Also worth examining is the interpretation of the children's lack of behavior problems two months into their foster placement. The absence of overt behavioral concerns does not necessarily suggest an absence of emotional conflict or needs. Children often experience a honeymoon period at the beginning of an out-of-home placement for a variety of reasons, including fear that if they misbehave they will be moved again. Ongoing monitoring of the children's behavior before, during, and after parental visits will assist in understanding their overall emotional needs.

Another issue raised by this case is the parental request for visits in jail with their children. Assuming that contact with the child's parent is recommended, the next step is to explore the circumstances of the jail. The previously mentioned article stated that the most effective type of visitation toward promoting a child's well-being is conducted in a developmentally appropriate and child-friendly environment. A child-friendly environment for Sam is one that provides a place for parents and children to play together, and it includes another adult whom the child trusts. The visit is "planned and considered a therapeutic intervention in which the child's needs are continually monitored as well as the parent's ability to provide a positive experience for the child." In the absence of an adequate visitation environment at the jail, a webcam can provide the next best alternative. This technology allows the child to sit in front of a camera in a comfortable and safe place with his trusted adult, and he can talk with his parent via a television screen. Perhaps as more child advocates request this webcam service in jails and prisons, it will become more widely available. Encouraging the exchange of letters and hand-drawn pictures is also helpful to children who value having a tangible reminder of their parent. This five-year-old boy remembers favorite outings with his father. Describing these special times in a picture, a letter, or an audiotape can help the child and the parent keep their connection alive during their separation.

This family's situation also draws attention to an area needing child advocacy on the macro level. "Both the criminal justice and child welfare systems can contribute to increasing the visibility of children when their parents enter the criminal justice system by routinely requesting and collecting family information when an adult is arrested," the previous article states. Sam's story includes his witnessing a police raid in his home during a drug-trafficking investigation when he was just two and before his siblings were born. He apparently went to live with his paternal grandparents, but not with a formal custody arrangement. The raid and arrest should have brought Sam to the attention of children's services if the criminal justice system had a routine way to collect information about him following his parents' arrest. Knowledge of Sam would have allowed appropriate authorities to explore his custody status and offer any services to meet his physical, social, and emotional needs. A closely related need is for child-sensitive arrest practices that can ameliorate the trauma that occurs if the child is present to witness the arrest. The child's fear and separation anxiety on parental arrest should be minimized with arrest practices that consider the emotional needs of children.

Case Study No. 2
Three-year-old Danny was removed from his mother's care when he was 20 months old because of his mother's drug use. Danny was placed in the care of his father. His father eventually struggled with his own substance-abuse issues, and Danny was removed from his care as well. Danny has been in three different placements since he left his father's home: a brief stay in foster care, a relative placement, and, currently, his father's paramour. When Danny was first removed from his mother's care, she was referred for a variety of services, including substance-abuse treatment. She did not successfully complete her treatment program. She also did not avail herself of the opportunity to visit with Danny consistently at the supervised visitation center because there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest, and she feared being arrested at the visitation center. Within the last few months, the mother was arrested and, as part of her sentencing, confined in a jail/substance-abuse treatment facility. This time, the mother is engaged in treatment and requesting visits with Danny, who is now age three.

Danny's children's services worker complied with the mother's request, believing that a treatment facility would provide an environment conducive to a positive visit between Danny and his mother. The caseworker brought Danny to the facility for the visit and, in retrospect, felt that the environment there was "more like a jail." During the visit, she observed Danny displaying behavior not typical for him, such as hitting and biting his mother. Danny's temporary custodian reported that he was "like a totally different child" during the week following his visit, displaying atypical behavior, including hitting, temper tantrums, and not listening to adult direction. The caseworker decided the facility was not an appropriate environment for Danny. She and Danny's attorney/GAL consulted with each other and determined that no further visits with the mother will be planned while she is in her current setting. They are, however, open to parental visitation in a therapeutic setting after the mother is released from her treatment program. Factors contributing to this decision included Danny's age at the time of his removal from the mother's care, the length of time that transpired since the removal, the mother's inconsistent and minimal efforts to maintain a relationship with Danny from the time of his removal until her recent incarceration, and Danny's troubling behavior during and after the initial visit with his mother.

Case Study No. 2 Analysis
The factors considered in the decision to suspend Danny's visitation with his mother are all significant, but there are important questions missing. The first question is about the overall case plan. Is the case plan to reunify Danny with his mother? Closely aligned with the first question is another: What is the goal of maternal visitation for Danny? The answers to these questions will begin to guide service providers thinking about visitation. Let's assume that reunification is the case plan. The purpose of visitation is to reestablish contact between Danny and his mother and build their relationship. For a three-year-old who has had little to no contact with his mother for 16 months, the introduction of visitation needs to be well-planned and slow. The behaviors Danny exhibited are often observed in children who experience their world as being unpredictable and out of their control. He may have been expressing fear, anger, confusion, sadness, or combinations of many feelings. These are feelings and reactions that are likely to occur in any setting, no matter how appropriate the visitation environment is for Danny. In other words, the greatest need is to prepare him for seeing his mother, no matter where she is living. Mental-health practitioners have many tools for assisting children with this careful preparation. The planning is focused on meeting the specific needs of each child and family within a trusted, therapeutic relationship. The specific tools can include family photographs and life books that can be used to support the child's receiving accurate information about the parent's absence, as well as preparing for a reunion. Mental-health practitioners help children recognize, understand, and begin to accept the varied feelings that are created by these often confusing and stressful life events. On the other hand, if the case plan is to file for permanent custody, the approach will be very different. In that case, the focus might be on helping Danny achieve a more complete story of his life through supported contact with his mother rather than on building a relationship.

Case Study No. 3
Paul is a teenager who has been in a planned permanent living arrangement for several years. Prenatal drug exposure started him off early on a path of problematic behavior, including an inability to regulate his basic biologic systems, impulsivity, and explosive behavior. His father is in prison for a long list of crimes. Paul has been through many out-of-home placements, including a year-long stay in a residential treatment facility. The mental-health treatment staff at the residential facility explored many creative ways to redirect Paul's self-destructive behaviors. In collaboration with Paul's attorney/GAL, they reached out to Paul's father to encourage contact that might help Paul in some way. Paul's father began sending appropriate and encouraging letters to Paul. The children's services caseworker and a staff member from the residential treatment team decided to bring Paul to the prison for a visit with his father. Paul had not seen his father for many years. Paul expressed a desire to visit his father, but the attorney/GAL also had concerns that such a visit might be traumatic. However, after consultation with the team, including Paul's therapist, the attorney/GAL's concerns were addressed, and all agreed to the parental visit. The team prepared Paul's father in advance about the goals of the visit and advised him what would be appropriate and helpful for Paul to hear. Paul's father was very cooperative. He talked to Paul about his own mistakes and his wish that his son could avoid making the same mistakes and, most importantly, that he avoid ending up in prison himself. Paul's problematic behaviors improved after this visit, and he has remained fairly stable since then. The attorney/GAL concludes that, overall, the visit provided very helpful support to Paul's therapeutic efforts to make sense of his life.

Case No. 3 Analysis
This situation demonstrates the potential power of parental contact on a child's emerging sense of self, even when there has been an absence of that contact for many years. There are many key elements contributing to the success of Paul's meeting with his father. The brief case summary highlights the participation of an active, interdisciplinary care team advocating for Paul's best interest. The members of the team collaborated and drew from one another's expertise to make difficult but creative decisions for him. One might speculate that both the treatment staff at the residential facility and his attorney/GAL had significant relationships with Paul. They each leveraged their relationship with him to encourage him to explore a part of his past they thought would be helpful to him. In this case, his significant attachment relationships existed within his treatment community, and they became the secure base from which he could explore his past. Paul was prepared for the meeting by a therapist he trusted. Paul's father was also prepared and coached about the significance of this event for his son. Children of all ages need to have a simple and honest narrative of their life stories. Even absent reunification realities, it is important to recognize the positive impact that planned contact can have on the emotional well-being of the child. The meeting between Paul and his father provided an opportunity for Paul's father to offer his son a piece of the family narrative. In addition, it afforded an opportunity for Paul to develop a more realistic understanding of his father's circumstances and see his father model appropriate interaction, perhaps for the first time.

The needs of children who have been thrust into the criminal justice system by the actions of their parents are complex and highly individualized. The best child advocacy occurs when there is a team of professionals, including a mental-health practitioner, to collaborate regarding the overall needs of children. Ongoing dialogue provides an environment in which each professional can share his or her expertise and reflect on the significance of the expertise of others. In this way, we can meet the needs of these children.

Keywords: litigation, children's rights, incarcerated parents, child development

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Lynne Reckman, Katie Gates, Meredith Schnug, and Debra Rothstein – March 29, 2012