by Lillian Hewko
Instead of boxes of chocolate and fancy dinners, for many faiths and traditions, love is expressed through compassion. I was reminded how love and compassion can drive action last month as I found myself at two Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebrations in Seattle; one with the amazing Angela Davis and the other with the amazing Michelle Alexander. Both speakers connected celebrations of MLK Day with our current problem of “Mass Incarceration.” Both speakers made a connection to honoring Mr. King’s “dream” by looking at our criminal justice system that incarcerates more people than any other nation, and urging us as citizens to do something about it. Mr. King said: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Today, we ask you to take some time to let your love act and support HB 1284 and SB 5460 (see below), which will help change some of the legal structures that affect our incarcerated parents who are working hard to maintain ties to their children.
Each year, millions of parents are removed from their communities, separated from their children and families, and sent to prison or jail. Most prisoners serve relatively short sentences for non-violent crimes. Many serve sentences less than five years, many serve sentences of less than two years. No matter the number of years, the time spent away missing moments of childhood can’t be recaptured-and these missed experiences may be crucial for a child’s well being and development.
For many of us, especially those who are parents, the idea of permanently losing a child may be one of your largest nightmares. For many of the incarcerated women I work with at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW), this is a reality. A woman I work with, Ms. S, had her rights terminated one month before she became eligible to apply to an alternative sentencing program that would have placed her in the community with her children just two months later.
Ms. S is not alone. An estimated 85% of women in prison are mothers, and over half have children under 18. Due to our current child welfare timelines and the inability of our systems to respond adequately to their needs, not only do these women miss special moments, but they risk losing their parental rights permanently.
The timeline was created in 1997 at a federal level with the intent to help children find safe, stable and permanent homes. But the enactment of the law did not predict the continued rise in our prison population since 1990, where the number of people behind bars for drug laws alone has increased twelvefold. The unintended consequence is that incarcerated parents in the child welfare system are now losing their children at twice the rate of those parents not involved in the criminal justice system. To offset this problem, many states including New York, have amended their laws to provide an additional exception to the timeline for incarcerated parents. HB 1284 and SB 5460 would do the same.
Many inmates experience significant life changes showing us that people do change and families can reunite. Because of the dearth of alternative resources for individuals struggling with addiction, for some, prison may be the first time they receive treatment for drug addiction or mental illness. Prison may also remove those who have been survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse from their abuser.
This law will in no way prevent the state from stepping in when necessary to terminate parental rights in order to provide children with safe, stable and permanent adoptive homes. What is in the best interest of the child is always of the utmost importance.
Instead, it will recognize that just like uniquely shaped puzzle pieces, no family facing parental incarceration has the same experience. We need laws that are more responsive to the special and unique challenges these families face. HB 1284 and SB 5460 will allow the more individualized family specific determinations that are needed in these difficult cases.
Mothers don’t stop loving and caring for their children because they enter prison, as they overcome addiction, or as they survive domestic violence.
Let’s let our love act, and as Mr. King suggested, fling more than a coin. Let’s identify with the struggle these women face. We have only been doing this since 1997—we can see the unintended consequences, now let’s show our love for these mothers and do something about it!
-- Ways to get involved --
Take 2 minutes: Make a public comment (NEW for 2013, 1000 characters) on the bill here.
Take 5 minutes: Call or write an email to each of the committee members.
Spend half a day with us: Attend the hearing MONDAY FEBRUARY 11th, 10 am and sign in support of SB 5460!
Human Services & Corrections - 02/11/13 10:00 am
Senate Hearing Rm 1
J.A. Cherberg Building
Senate Hearing Rm 1
J.A. Cherberg Building
Dear Madam Chair and Committee Members,
I am writing in support of SB 5460, which will give the court the authority and guidance necessary to take into consideration the unique circumstances of incarcerated parents and delay the current timelines when a parent’s incarceration, prior incarceration, or participation in a residential drug treatment program is a significant factor for the child’s continued out of home placement. Incarcerated parents and their children have unique cases with significant barriers and no one family is the same. This bill will allow a specific and individualized family assessment.
[Add personal reason/story for your support].
Mothers don’t stop loving and caring for their children because they enter prison, as they over-come addiction, or as they survive domestic violence. Unnecessarily separating families is devastating to children in foster care, their incarcerated parents, and our communities
Keeping families together keeps our communities safer and more supported as family reunification is linked to reduced recidivism, greater family stability and improved emotional response for children.
Lillian Hewko is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at Legal Voice. She is working to implement a project she developed to provide legal education to incarcerated mothers and implement litigation and legislative strategies to reduce the chances of family separation in Washington State.