Who Is Responsible for the Children Left Behind When Mothers Go to Prison?

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Most children, especially young children, are in the primary care of their mother when she is arrested. The degree of disruption in these children's lives upon the arrest of their mothers depends in large part on where they go and who takes care of them while she is incarcerated. Mothers in state prisons report that their children are in the care of the father in just 25% of cases, while the rest go to a grandmother (51%), another relative (20%), a family friend (4%), or a foster home or agency (11%) (US Department of Justice, 1993). Two percent of children under 18 live alone, without adult supervision. (These statistics do not add to 100% because mothers may be reporting on more than one child, and the children may be placed in different settings.) Grandmothers are the largest caregiver group, and the many difficulties they face have been well-documented. Little or no financial assistance is available to family members who are willing to take on the responsibilities involved in raising these children, a burden the state would have to finance should the children be placed in foster care. Such financial hardships may contribute to the complex nature of the child/caregiver relationship. In many instances, relative-caregivers can help prevent children from being exposed to chaotic or neglectful living conditions that perpetuate the possibility of problems in later stages. Relative-caregivers can provide the familial continuity, and the safe, stable environment that the children need. However, this often strains the finances, resources, and energy of caregivers who are older and have few resources (Phillips, 1996). Prison is not a good place for pregnant women. That does not mean that pregnancy provides immunity against wrongdoing and incarceration, but it does mean that there should be a strong public policy interest in promoting healthy pregnancies and good birth outcomes for incarcerated women who chose to continue their pregnancies. In the last two decades...
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