In the past few weeks, public outrage has erupted in response to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border. Yet in the US, family separations are not new.
Nearly 6 million children have parents who are or have been imprisoned in the US. Incarcerated mothers are more likely to be the sole or primary caretaker of their children, and their children are five times as likely as children with an incarcerated father to end up in the foster care system. Also, most people in jails, as opposed to prisons, have not been convicted of a crime, yet they are punished nonetheless. The children of detained parents are effectively being punished too.
Human Rights Watch, together with the American Civil Liberties Union, is documenting the impact of being jailed on Oklahoma mothers. Tanisha’s (not her real name) story, which we shared for mother’s day, is typical. She was arrested and jailed for a month because she could not afford cash bail. One year later, Tanisha is still fighting to regain custody of her three young children.
To get their children back, mothers must satisfy certain conditions that they cannot meet while in jail. It’s required that they see their children, but most Oklahoma jails either bar children from visiting or have eliminated in-person visitation altogether. Mothers who are in jail rarely have access to required parenting classes. They also are not receiving treatment for drug dependence, if that is mandated. Once released, many have felony convictions that bar them from employment, some housing, and public benefits they need to create a stable home for their children.
Additionally, mothers face barriers to participating in custody decisions and may leave jail only to learn they have lost custody of their children. The hardship of being separated from children, and the risks of losing custody, led many to choose not to fight the charges against them, instead pleading guilty in order to return home sooner.
The plight of these families and their struggles to reunite with their children are largely ignored, but it does not have to be. We should interrogate all policies that separate families and do much more to develop alternatives to incarceration that are both just and fair to parents and their children.