Panel Paper: More Information and Collaboration Could Promote Ties Between Foster Care Children and Their Incarcerated Parents

Saturday, November 10, 2012 : 10:35 AM
Preston (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Kay Brown, Gale Harris, Theresa Lo, Melissa Jaynes, Andrew Nelson and Miriam Hill, U.S. Government Accountability Office


At the intersection of two separate government systems—foster care and corrections--are some of the nation’s most vulnerable children. At the end of fiscal year 2009, 423,773 children were in state-administered foster care, having been removed from their homes, often due to neglect or abuse.  Some of these children have a parent in one of the nation’s federal, state, or local prisons or jails.  More than 800,000 parents were in state or federal prisons, according to the most recent estimates from 2007 from the Department of Justice (DOJ).  Moreover, the number of mothers in prison more than doubled from 1991 to 2007.  Some researchers and advocacy groups have also questioned whether child welfare and corrections systems have overlooked the rehabilitation of these parents and the assessment of opportunities to preserve family ties, when appropriate, that may lead to better outcomes for children and parents.  We examined: (1) the number of foster care children with incarcerated parents, (2) strategies used by child welfare and corrections agencies in selected states that may support contact or reunification, and (3) how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and DOJ have helped these agencies support affected children and families. We analyzed national data from a foster care database as well as prison and jail survey data, reviewed federal policies, interviewed state child welfare and corrections officials in 10 selected states that contain almost half of the nation’s prison and foster care populations, and visited local child welfare agencies and prisons.

Findings and Recommendations

Foster care children with an incarcerated parent are likely to number in the tens of thousands. HHS data collected from states show that, in 2009 alone, more than 14,000 children entered foster care due at least partly to the incarceration of a parent. Also, our examination of DOJ prison and jail survey data indicated that HHS data do not capture all foster children with incarcerated parents. 

In 10 selected states, we found a range of strategies that support family ties among affected families when appropriate. In several cases, corrections agencies and child welfare agencies have collaborated, which has resulted in interagency training, liaison staff positions, and video visitation efforts. In addition, HHS and DOJ each provide information and assistance to child welfare and corrections agencies on behalf of these children and families.  Still, we heard from some state and local child welfare officials that more collaboration between child welfare and corrections agencies would facilitate their work with foster care children and their parents.

Given fiscal constraints and competing demands placed on agencies at every level, policymakers are focusing more attention on working across systems for more effective and efficient outcomes.  We recommended that HHS and DOJ facilitate information sharing among state and local child welfare and corrections agencies, respectively. Such information might promote promising ways that these systems can collaborate, including establishing protocols for federal prisons on communicating and coordinating with child welfare agencies.

Full Paper: