Mother and child disunion 

In an era of mass incarceration, more women are going to prison and for longer. An often overlooked consequence: More children are ending up in foster care.

click to enlarge TOGETHER AGAIN: Lisa Rushing and her oldest two children, Alvin, 7, and Aubree, 4. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • TOGETHER AGAIN: Lisa Rushing and her oldest two children, Alvin, 7, and Aubree, 4.

Ten days after her youngest son was born in April 2014, Lisa Rushing, a 27-year-old from Paragould, went to jail.

She'd been in trouble for a while: After receiving felony probation for credit card fraud, she'd failed to meet with her probation officer for at least two years, resulting in a warrant for absconding. During the same time, she'd also become addicted to meth, and had signed over guardianship of her two older children, a boy and a girl, to her mother to prevent them from being taken into foster care. There were circumstances behind Rushing's problems: Her father had been murdered in 2010, and she'd begun drinking heavily and eventually using drugs to cope; the father of her own children was in and out of prison, and it seemed that every time she became pregnant he was locked up again.

Both the child welfare and the criminal justice systems caught up with Rushing when her infant was born with methamphetamine in his system. Rushing was to meet with a lawyer soon after delivering so she could formalize her mother's status as guardian of this child as well. But, while she was waiting to leave the hospital three days after the birth, Greene County sheriff's deputies came to her room accompanied by employees of the Division of Children and Family Services, the branch of the Arkansas Department of Human Services responsible for child welfare and foster care. DCFS took the infant into state custody and Rushing's mother was told that if she wanted to care for the baby, she'd have to apply to become a foster parent.

Rushing began the first steps of the process toward "reunification," the term for returning a child removed from his or her home by authorities and the stated goal of most child welfare cases.

She went to the local DHS office and watched "The Clock Is Ticking," a short video laying out what she should expect from the case plan and court process, and what steps she'd have to fulfill if she wanted to regain custody from DCFS.

The video emphasized how quickly the child could be offered for adoption if she didn't satisfy the requirements of her case plan — in most cases, 15 months after the child comes into custody. She went to her first family court hearing, where her son was officially placed in foster care and Rushing said she was advised that if she met her case plan, beginning with addressing her addiction and criminal history, she could get him back.

But the same day, her bondsman called to say that her bond, issued around 2012 for the initial fraud charge, was being revoked. Hoping that complying meant she could get her son back, Rushing willingly turned herself in.

Just over a year later, in May 2015, Rushing was living at Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center, a therapeutic women's prison in Pine Bluff specializing in substance abuse recovery. She'd been transferred there from Greene County Jail, and, most of the way through the prison's recovery program, she anticipated that she'd be approved for an early release that August. She'd been sober for a year, and had been working on the parts of her DCFS case plan that she could address from prison: She went to counseling seven days a week, had taken parenting classes, GED exams and spirituality classes, and worked in the prison "chow hall" and later as a porter in the center's administrative office.

She hadn't been able to attend any of the court hearings for her DCFS case in person. It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive back to Paragould, and paying to transport prisoners to hearings requires a court order. She tried to participate remotely, as the prison director and administrators set her and her counselor up with phone conferencing to listen in on her hearings. That worked twice, Rushing said, but on several other occasions she sat with her counselor almost the whole day, waiting for the court to call until realizing they wouldn't.

Rushing hadn't been able to visit with any of her children since she'd been transferred to Pine Bluff. Her mother, who had her two oldest, didn't have a driver's license (which Rushing believes prevented her from being approved as a relative foster parent). And DCFS, she said, never agreed to bring the baby to Pine Bluff, although the prison sent documents approving the visitation.

Alisa Rawlings, the adminstrative assistant to the prison director and Rushing's supervisor in her job as a porter, recalled a number of confusing setbacks they couldn't get to the bottom of: court dates, postponed or canceled without notice; DCFS caseworkers who didn't return calls; the agency's failure to follow the prison's straightforward protocol in requesting visitation for Rushing's son; and, their incorrect later assertion that visits had taken place.

"There was always some excuse," Rawlings said.

As her probable release date neared, Rushing wrote her parent counsel — the court-assigned attorney who represented her — to ask that she request more time for Rushing to meet her case plan. As it was, Rushing would be released from prison only weeks after the 15-month cut-off point, and would just miss the opportunity to meet her remaining requirements, namely that she find a job and housing.

Her lawyer responded brusquely. "Your request will not be granted because that's not the law," she wrote in a letter to Rushing. "The law and the court do not care that you cannot obtain [a] home and employment while incarcerated. The law and the court care that your child has had to wait over a year for permanency and if you were given more time the child would have to wait even longer." The court, the lawyer predicted, would likely decide to change the goal of the case plan from reunification to adoption, terminating Rushing's parental rights. Rushing's only option, she said, was to choose to relinquish her rights herself.

Sitting in a yellow jumpsuit at a classroom desk at the SACC detention center in May 2015, Rushing said she'd only seen her youngest son once in all that year, during a quick visit at the Greene County Jail before she'd been transferred to Pine Bluff. A thin white woman with long brown hair in a bun and a face that quickly reddens when she cries, Rushing remembered how they'd sat on the floor of a conference room at the county lockup and played. The boy was crawling and teething, and he smelled like lavender, like another family's soap.

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON

The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country, and children reap the consequences. In our era of mass incarceration, over 5.1 million children nationwide have had a parent imprisoned at some point in their lives, according to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation released this April. Those numbers include 61,000 kids in Arkansas, or 9 percent of the state's children, compared to 7 percent nationwide. Many of those children live with their other parent or an extended relative. But a large number will end up in foster care.

Nationally, about 15-20 percent of children in foster care have an incarcerated parent. Arkansas is on the high end of that spectrum: Former DCFS Director Cecile Blucker estimated that 20 percent of Arkansas's foster children are in care because a parent went to prison or jail. It's the third-most common reason that children are taken into state custody, and has been for years, she said. (Blucker stepped down as head of the division at the end of March.)

That's likely due in large part to the changing gender demographics in prisons in the U.S. over the last several decades. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women across the country has increased 700 percent, growth that has continued at a faster pace than the incarceration rate for men. Arkansas stands out here as well. As of 2014, the state was among the top 10 states with the highest female incarceration rates. Nationally, most of those women — around 60 percent, according to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics — are mothers of minor-age children.

When fathers go to prison, children often remain with their mothers, but when mothers go to prison, the children are much more likely to live with aunts or grandmothers, or, barring that, to land in foster care. While 2 percent of children with incarcerated fathers are in foster care nationwide, the figure is 11 percent for children with incarcerated mothers, according to Rutgers University's National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. Between the mid-1980s and 2000, the number of children in foster care more than doubled, and a 2006 study published in the journal "Demography" argued that this "foster care crisis" could be traced to the growth in the imprisonment of women, particularly the higher incarceration rates and longer sentences that resulted from the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The study's authors concluded that the steep increase in foster care rates was also fueled by cuts to welfare benefits and food stamp allowances during this same period. (Researchers have long recognized that poverty correlates strongly with child maltreatment rates, whether because poor families come under more stress or because poor families become more visible to authorities and thus are more likely to be reported to child welfare agencies.)

Conventional wisdom might be that parents who wind up incarcerated are de facto unfit, and that their children will be better off. But extensive research has shown that in most cases, children and families suffer when a family member goes to prison. Aside from emotional fallout, a large portion of family income is usually lost, adding significant stress to the family, and potentially compounding neglect as the family falls under greater strain.

Sara Wakefield, a professor at Rutgers University and co-author with Christopher Wildeman of "Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality," conducted a series of studies on the children of incarcerated fathers. There, the two found, in almost all cases children are worse off when their fathers are incarcerated (with the exception of a small subset of violent fathers who had abused the children's mothers).

Their studies didn't look at foster children specifically, but Wakefield said she wouldn't be surprised to find that that cohort — children of incarcerated fathers who were then placed in foster care — were doing the worst of all, since foster children fare worse, as a group, on various measures of instability. A 2005 study of foster care alumni undertaken by Casey Family Programs found that a third of former foster children were living in poverty as adults, more than half had experienced clinical levels of mental illness, and that as a group they exhibited post-traumatic stress symptoms at twice the rate of U.S. war veterans. On the other side of the equation, staggering percentages of former foster youth themselves end up incarcerated within a few years after aging out of state custody — around 33 percent of young women and 64 percent of young men, according to an ongoing study by the Chapin Hall research center at the University of Chicago — in what is sometimes called the foster-care-to-prison pipeline. Somewhat counterintuitively, early research suggests that the effects of having a mother incarcerated aren't as uniformly negative as having a father in prison. Wakefield, who is now studying the children of mothers in prison, said this is because mothers have a more central role in childrearing: When a father is unstable, mothers can offer a buffer to offset a child's exposure, but when mothers are unstable — most often because they're mentally ill or addicted — children can be more directly harmed.

"Incarcerated mothers are a heterogeneous group," Wakefield said, representing both "large groups of women who are good parents but who are struggling with mental illness, substance abuse or poverty, and then also a group of women who arguably are not safe with their children." It follows, she said, that while having a mother incarcerated is likely to be inherently more destabilizing for a child, whether it's better or worse for the child to then be placed outside the home depends on the situation.

"You have a portion of kids who are really harmed and then a portion of kids who are not harmed, or who are benefited [by being removed]. If you add them together, it's a zero, but that doesn't mean it's neutral. It means it's different for different kids," she said. "The way I'd characterize it is that one-size-fits-all laws about foster care do not map well onto the population of incarcerated mothers and their children."

One such one-size prescription is the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act, which is where the 15-month "ticking clock" comes from. The law stipulates that, with a few exceptions, if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months (unless they're being fostered by a relative), child welfare agencies must stop working toward the reunification of the family and should instead move to terminate parental rights and make the child available for adoption.

The law was intended to protect children from lingering for years in foster care. But it came into effect during the era when mothers began going to prison more often and in greater numbers, leading to the unintended effect that many more women were put at risk of losing their parental rights. A principle that might make sense if a mother is incarcerated for a number of years seems to make less sense when it's applied to mothers who may only miss their window for regaining custody by a matter of months.

click to enlarge ADVOCATE: Dee Ann Newell has been teaching parenting classes in Arkansas prisons for 25 years. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • ADVOCATE: Dee Ann Newell has been teaching parenting classes in Arkansas prisons for 25 years.

Located on the grounds of a former boys' academy, Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center still has some of the feel of a school campus, with one-story cottages connected by a network of sidewalks. Outside the prison gates, inmates in yellow jumpsuits work in a large garden growing greens and tomatoes, and wave when visitors approach or leave. SACC is a therapeutic community that is not supposed to hold any violent offenders, and you'd almost forget where you were if not for the squads of women marching and chanting adapted boot camp cadences with their hands clasped behind their backs. On one of the patches of grassy lawn inside the fence there's a children's playground, but it largely goes unused.

The playground was proposed by Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, an advocacy group founded by Dee Ann Newell. For 25 years, Newell has been visiting prisons to teach her class, "Parenting Inside." She started years ago, in a previous women's unit in Pine Bluff that at the time had only a chicken coop for a classroom. She continued on to 13 other prisons and jails across the state, for both men and women; this June, Newell will join 11 other organizations for a Listening Summit for Children of Incarcerated Parents at the White House, where a member of the youth groups she works with will make recommendations to the federal agencies tasked with dealing with prisoners and their families.

In February, Newell arrived at SACC for the first day of a parenting course with a new set of 15 students. The women were mostly already seated, though two wouldn't make it that day — they were pregnant and getting medical checkups for babies they'd likely deliver in prison. They sat at tables in a horseshoe arrangement and passed Newell's handouts as she began to tell them about herself: how when she'd first started volunteering in Pine Bluff in 1991, nearly all of the 200 female inmates approached her to ask if she'd check on their children and the relatives who were caring for them. With support from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Newell and local university social work students interviewed 180 of those families and found they were struggling. Consequently, beginning in 1994, Arkansas Voices began to provide services for the families of prisoners as well, through visitation facilitation, reentry support and peer groups for inmates' children.

But most of her time is spent painstakingly dealing with individual parents and kids. She told the class that what they did in parenting class was hard and painful work — "because we're dealing with mothers who aren't with their children" — but that it was also important work that could help them avoid recidivism. Out of 1,025 former mothers who'd taken her class from 2001 to 2010, Newell told them, she'd only had one woman return to prison after release.

Before she'd gotten halfway through her introduction, one woman couldn't hold back from interjecting with a question that seemed to be on many minds. Her daughter had been taken into foster care when she was arrested; would she be able to get her back?

The other women in class piped in with advice, some of it wrong. "From what I understand, they can't take your rights away while you're incarcerated," one woman said. "They have to give you that chance."

"Oh, yes they can," someone else replied.

"What are you being told?" Newell asked gently. The woman said she hadn't heard anything from DCFS since she'd been incarcerated in August, six months earlier. She wasn't sure if DCFS even knew where she was.

"Nobody has talked to you?" Newell asked. She said she'd need details of the case, and in fact, would need details on all of the women's situations if they wanted help.

"It is important for you to know your rights and your responsibilities," she started again. "I think there's a general consensus here that there has not been a lot of responsibility on your part and you're trying to amend that." But they also had rights that were often overlooked. One of the most pressing problems for incarcerated parents, Newell said, was that if they weren't hearing from DCFS, their parental rights could be terminated without warning. (Often, this occurs because DCFS doesn't know how to reach an incarcerated parent, Newell said: Family members may not tell the truth to caseworkers, or mothers simply may not know who to contact.) She told them to get access to their hometown newspapers, in case DCFS had placed pre-adoption classified ads about their child — something the agency will do if it can't locate a parent.

She mentioned the Adoption and Safe Families Act, and how it came into being during the wave of tougher crime bills and prison sentencing. Unlike some states, such as California, New York and Washington, which have extended the 15-month time frame for incarcerated parents, Arkansas has not. "The one way we can stop the clock is if the child is with a relative," she said. But, she added, Arkansas also fails to place enough children with relatives. "So we're losing it both ways." She reminded the women whose children were living with family members — about half the class — that they should know how lucky they were, and that she hoped the women with DCFS cases wouldn't be jealous. She said that she would bring in stationery and stamps so they could write thank-you letters to the grandmothers or aunts "who stepped up when you couldn't."

As the women went around the room, sharing their stories, describing distinct situations with common elements of drugs, poverty and often abuse at the hands of partners or parents, Newell listened and said, "Bless you," and occasionally grimaced at the mention of a county she knew to be particularly hostile to incarcerated parents. One woman — only one — noted that she got to see her two children regularly, since they were both living with relatives. Newell clapped her hands.

"I'm going to jump up and down! That's good news," she said.

Getting to see your children in prison in Arkansas, Newell said, can seem impossible. When DCFS is involved, she said, visits sometimes simply don't happen, even though caseworkers are generally charged with supervising prison visits so they can report back to the judge. "But it doesn't happen in Arkansas. I can count on two hands how many times it's happened." Sometimes this might be due to the prison refusing to approve visits, but that didn't seem to be the case at SACC, where a number of the women said the prison director and administrators had sometimes gone to great lengths to try to arrange visitations. The facility's assistant supervisor, Rose Washington, said that part of their mission is ensuring "that family contact is maintained to the very extent we can make it happen."

SACC's staff varied in their estimates of how often mothers with DCFS cases get to see their children. Treatment supervisor Syrne Bowers recalled instances where caseworkers sometimes made multiple trips to bring down a large family of children to visit their mother — three one week and two the next, to accommodate car seats — but Alisa Rawlings, who processes the prison's visitation paperwork, said that overall "there's not a huge amount of mothers that get to see their children while they're here."

Sometimes, said former DCFS Director Cecile Blucker, a lack of visitation is the result of a judge opposed to children visiting parents in prison on principle, fearing "generational issues": that taking children to prison will so normalize the experience that they won't see prison as bad, and may be more likely to end up there themselves.

A number of states have more generous family visitation policies for prisoners, and some have piloted programs to let infants stay with their incarcerated mothers for the first year of their lives to allow bonding. Research has consistently shown that encouraging contact between children and incarcerated parents not only benefits kids — a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that maintaining regular contact is one of the most important factors in helping children adjust — but also helps parents, since those who receive regular visitation with their families are significantly less likely to return to prison. But many such visitation programs have been cut back, casualties of the era of mass incarceration and shrinking budgets. As a December story in The Nation explored, Mississippi until recently was home to a remarkably progressive visitation model that allowed parents to spend extended time with their children, playing, cooking and talking. In 2012, however, it was shut down.

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON

Lisa Rushing was one of those who never received visitation while she was incarcerated, although she said the staff at SACC had "done everything they could" to help make it happen, including the prison director and her administrative assistant personally contacting DCFS. To her dismay, she learned last fall that that failure to obtain visits had permanent consequences.

In early August, as she'd hoped, Rushing passed her "vote" — the assessment by her prison counselors and other treatment and administrative staff that she'd successfully completed the program and could leave on parole. Her official release date was Sept. 1, less than a week after the court date at which DCFS said it planned to terminate her parental rights. The family that had been fostering Rushing's son since she went to jail wanted to adopt him.

The court date was postponed — thanks, Rushing believes, to the intervention of SACC administrators — and she returned to Paragould. Her daughter, now in preschool, and her oldest son, in first grade, clung to her side for weeks after she got back. She joined a Narcotics Anonymous group, told her old friends she couldn't be around them anymore, and signed up for GED classes to finish the last subject she hadn't passed in prison.

Although confidentiality laws prevented counselors at SACC from commenting on the specifics of Rushing's treatment history, two of the treatment staff described her generally as one of the center's success stories. Dealing with a DCFS case while incarcerated, as well as dealing with addiction, is unequivocally challenging, they said. But those who make good use of the time can also reach a pivotal point in their recovery.

"Lisa took this as an opportunity," said Karen Matcin, Rushing's last primary counselor at SACC. "I think she's an example of an individual who, if you are faced with adversity and challenges, if you apply the right tools, they become a testament to the program."

Alisa Rawlings, who'd gotten to know Rushing when she worked as a porter, remembered her as a shy and concientious worker who liked to share pictures of her children. Rawlings said she'd been rooting for Rushing when she was released.

"One thing I know about her is she loved her children," Rawlings said. "I was praying that it would turn in her favor."

Within a week of being home, Rushing applied with DCFS to visit her son, now almost 18 months old, passed the agency's mandatory drug test and was approved. She asked her new caseworker — she said she'd had six — what her son's current clothing sizes were so that she could buy him new clothes.

Her court date was postponed to late September, and then to late November. Rushing became hopeful that DCFS would give her more time, "considering I'm doing good and trying to get things right." But when she asked DCFS workers questions, she said they told her to ask her lawyer. And when she called her lawyer — the same parent counsel who had written her so curtly in May — she said she left five messages and had to visit the office in person before she got a response.

Still, she got to see her son, for two hours once a week in a tiny room at DHS offices. After not seeing his mother for 10 months — since just before she'd been moved from Greene County Jail to SACC — the boy was restless and wary. But after that first awkward visit, she felt him begin to warm up, playing with her and posing for pictures.

Then, in mid-November, as they neared Rushing's court date, she was informed that her upcoming hearing would be her last before her parental rights were terminated.

"They said I was locked up too long and that the foster family was willing to adopt him and was the only family he knew. That it was in the child's best interests to terminate because we have no bond," she said. "But that's because they never brought him to see me."

Her parent counsel called her to her office to have a phone conference with the judge who would preside over their case. There, they told her that she faced a choice: Either voluntarily relinquish her parental rights, or have them involuntarily terminated. Rushing provided the Arkansas Times with a letter from the attorney advising her against fighting the termination: "Remember, if and when the Court involuntarily terminates your parental rights, that termination can be used against you to terminate your rights to any children born to you after [your son] that are taken into DCFS custody... Additionally it is my opinion that you cannot win this case considering your past and the lack of progress you have made to this point as a result of your very lengthy incarceration." (The attorney's office told the Times that it would not discuss details of a past client's case.)

It took more than a week for Rushing to decide what to do. In the end, to protect her "children and future children," she said, she signed. At the court hearing, Rushing said, DCFS presented a case for involuntary termination anyway, testifying that she hadn't fulfilled her case plan: that she hadn't made her visits, nor sent financial support for her son's foster care, nor passed more drug screenings while she had been in prison. Rushing didn't fail any drug tests in prison but wasn't ever picked for random testing at SACC, and, because DCFS didn't bring her son to visit while she was in Pine Bluff, the agency never tested her there, either.

"They acted like I hadn't done anything I was supposed to do," she said. "Like I had a choice of where I was at." In the end, the judge let her voluntary termination stand.

click to enlarge THE DIRECTOR: In March, Cecile Blucker stepped down as head of the Division of Children and Family Services. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • THE DIRECTOR: In March, Cecile Blucker stepped down as head of the Division of Children and Family Services.

DCFS is forbidden by law from speaking on specific cases, but presented with the outline of the situation as Rushing told it, former Director Blucker said that DCFS tends to support visitation between children and incarcerated parents. She said it's normal DCFS protocol for caseworkers to visit with parents in prison, to make recommendations about children visiting their incarcerated parents, and to have either a caseworker or program assistant drive children down for regular visits. The long distances involved in many cases though —three-and-a-half hours between Paragould and Pine Bluff, in Rushing's case — come on top of already-heavy DCFS caseloads, and could be a reason visits aren't always made. Blucker added that the practice of some courts to hold cattle call-style "DCFS days," when caseworkers and their charges are compelled to wait in court until their case is called — sometimes all day — could impact the ability of DCFS and courts to ensure that incarcerated parents are allowed to at least attend hearings by phone.

"It could be that we just messed up," Blucker said, speaking hypothetically about the lack of visitation in a case like Rushing's. But the responsibility for making sure that visits — or court appearances, or drug testing — happen, Blucker said, rests with parent counsel, not DCFS.

Today, Rushing is engaged, attending NA meetings and in the process of buying a house; she hasn't yet passed her final GED exam, but her adult education teacher said that Rushing has been a respectful and dedicated student and that she expects she'll return to try again this fall. When she and her oldest two children drive past DHS offices in Paragould, Rushing said, the kids point at the agency building, where they'd gone with their grandmother on visitation, and say that that's where their brother is. Her son keeps asking when he'll see his brother, and Rushing's mother keeps buying presents, Christmas ornaments and clothes for her grandson, which then get put in storage, in case the boy gets in touch when he turns 18.

Rushing said she's careful to explain to her other children that she bears the blame for the loss of their baby brother.

"The kids understand that I did something bad when I was pregnant, so they don't think, 'These bad people took baby.' No, it's that I was bad and so someone came and took baby," she said.

When she's not teaching them, though, she sounds less clear. "I know I was in the wrong. I understand why they took him. But when you go through a program to get better, and you come out and they still pull everything out from beneath you? It's like they don't want to help."

"I think the broader policy discussion to have around incarcerated parents is that incarceration isn't working," Sarah Wakefield said.

Crime rates have fallen dramatically in recent decades, but that's not thanks to mass incarceration. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice found that the huge increase in incarceration rates in the '80s and '90s had a negligible effect on reducing crime when compared to other social and economic factors. And policymakers are taking note: At the federal level, a bipartisan coalition in Congress is currently backing legislation that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and drug offenses, and in Arkansas, a legislative task force is considering state-level reforms.

In addition to the immense financial and human costs of locking up millions of people for nonviolent offenses, mass incarceration further destabilizes disadvantaged families and adds to the tally of children in foster care.

"Why would we pursue a path that isn't making us safer and is transmitting this disadvantage across generations?" Wakefield asked. "We tend to think of this as 'incarceration happens first and then children end up in the child welfare system,' but if you look at the histories of women in prison, many of them come from the child welfare system. It's a cycle."

The next question that raises is what we should be doing instead. While the incarceration of parents is bad for their children, it's also bad for children to live in environments of poverty and instability, where their parents can't afford housing, food or medical care, or suffer from untreated mental health or substance abuse problems.

A glimpse of what a better solution might be came this April in a new study published in the "American Sociological Review." Frank Edwards, a sociology Ph.D. at the University of Washington, reviewed 10 years of federal data about every state's foster care system and compared those findings to how punitive a state's criminal justice system is, and how generous its system of welfare benefits. What he found was a clear correlation between three factors: how harshly a state deals with crime (as measured by incarceration, death sentence rates and the ratio of police per capita), how it deals with the economically vulnerable (according to how difficult it is for families to access welfare benefits), and how many children will end up in foster care.

"The simplest terms I could put it in," Edwards said, "is that the number of children entering foster care every year in a state is pretty well predicted by the punitive-ness of the state's criminal justice system and the generosity of its welfare system." Edwards' research suggests a cultural link between these disparate pieces of a state's approach to its citizens, or what he calls its "policy regime." A state more disposed to punish criminals harshly also tends to "punish" parents more harshly in child welfare cases.

"It's a culture or style in governments and agencies that trickles down to how caseworkers and judges make decisions," he said. In the data that Edwards looked at, Arkansas had a higher-than-average incarceration rate (6.4 people incarcerated per thousand, compared to a national average of 5.04) and low enrollment rates for benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, as well as "especially ungenerous" TANF payments ($260 per month maximum, as compared to $477 nationally).

"The links are undeniable," he said. "There's abundant evidence that the criminal justice system is having negative impacts on families, and there's abundant evidence that having an expansive criminal justice system will ... increase the number of kids going into foster care." In clearer terms than research has shown to date, the study indicates that a state faced with a foster care crisis can reduce its foster population by making two policy changes that may seem, on their surface, unrelated to child welfare: creating a more forgiving criminal justice system and a kinder, more expansive social safety net.


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