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United States Government Accountability Office

GAO

Report to Congressional Requesters

September 2011

CHILD WELFARE
More Information and
Collaboration Could
Promote Ties Between
Foster Care Children
and Their Incarcerated
Parents

GAO-11-863

September 2011

CHILD WELFARE

Highlights of GAO-11-863, a report to
congressional requesters

More Information and Collaboration Could Promote
Ties between Foster Care Children and Their
Incarcerated Parents

Why GAO Did This Study

What GAO Found

Federal law sets timelines for states’
decisions about placing foster care
children in permanent homes, and, in
some cases, for filing to terminate
parental rights. Some policymakers
have questioned the reasonableness
of these timelines for children of
incarcerated parents and expressed
interest in how states work with these
families. GAO was asked to examine:
(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 the Department of
Justice (DOJ) have helped these
agencies support affected children and
families. GAO analyzed national 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.

Foster care children with an incarcerated parent are not a well-identified
population, although they 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. This may
be an undercount, however, due to some underreporting from states and other
factors. For instance, the data do not identify when a parent is incarcerated after
the child entered foster care—a more common occurrence, according to case
workers GAO interviewed. HHS is currently developing a proposal for new state
reporting requirements on all foster care children; however, officials had not
determined whether these new requirements would include more information
collected from states on children with incarcerated parents.

What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that HHS improve
its data on the foster care children of
incarcerated parents and that it more
systematically disseminate information
to child welfare agencies. GAO also
recommends that DOJ consider ways
to promote collaboration between
corrections and child welfare agencies,
including establishing protocols for
federal prisons to facilitate
communication between these entities.
HHS and DOJ agreed with GAO’s
recommendations.

View GAO-11-863. For more information,
contact Kay E. Brown at (202) 512-7215 or
brownke@gao.gov.

In 10 selected states, GAO found a range of strategies that support family ties.
Some state child welfare agencies have provided guidance and training to
caseworkers for managing such cases; and local agencies have worked with
dependency courts to help inmates participate in child welfare hearings by phone
or other means. For their part, some corrections agencies ease children’s visits
to prisons with special visitation hours and programs. In several cases,
corrections agencies and child welfare agencies have collaborated, which has
resulted in some interagency training for personnel, the creation of liaison staff
positions, and video visitation facilitated by non-profit providers.
HHS and DOJ each provide information and assistance to child welfare and
corrections agencies on behalf of these children and families. For example, both
federal agencies post information on their websites for practitioners working with
children or their incarcerated parents, with some specific to foster care. The HHS
information, however, was not always up to date or centrally organized, and
officials from most of the state child welfare and corrections agencies GAO
interviewed said they would benefit from information on how to serve these
children. Further, DOJ has not developed protocols for federal prisons under its
own jurisdiction for working with child welfare agencies and their staff, although
GAO heard from some state and local child welfare officials that collaboration
between child welfare and corrections agencies would facilitate their work with
foster care children and their parents. This would also be in keeping with a DOJ
agency goal to build partnerships with other entities to improve services and
promote reintegration of offenders into communities.
Examples of Strategies to Support Family Ties

Video visit with incacerated parent

Children’s visiting room in women’s prison

Source: © May 2011 The Osborne Association; photo by Jonathan Stenger (left); GAO (right).

United States Government Accountability Office

Contents

1

Letter
Background
Foster Care Children with an Incarcerated Parent Are Not a WellIdentified Population, but Available Data Suggest They Number
in the Thousands
Strategies for Preserving Families Include Flexibility in Timelines
for Terminating Parental Rights, Programs for Parents, and
Interagency Collaboration
HHS and DOJ Provide Some Relevant Information and Assistance,
but State Agencies Are Not Always Aware of These Resources
Conclusions
Recommendations
Agency Comments and Our Evaluation

3

33
41
42
44

Appendix I

Scope and Methodology

46

Appendix II

Children with Parents in Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

55

Appendix III

Provisions from Selected State Statutes on Termination of Parental
Rights and “Reasonable Efforts” That Specifically Address
Incarcerated Parents

63

Appendix IV

Comments from the Department of Health and Human Services

68

Appendix V

GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments

72

10

20

Tables
Table 1: Outcomes for Children Exiting Foster Care in Fiscal Year
2009
Table 2: Types of Correctional Facilities
Table 3: Children Removed from Home Due At Least Partly to
Parental Incarceration, 2009 Open Cases, by Year of
Removal, 2007–2009

Page i

5
10

47

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Table 4: Information on Selected States
Table 5: RPG Performance Indicators
Table 6: Selected State Statutory Provisions Related to
Incarcerated Parents and the Termination of Parental
Rights
Table 7: Selected State Statutory Provisions Related to
Incarcerated Parents and Reasonable Efforts to Preserve
and Reunify the Family

50
61

64

66

Figures
Figure 1: Sample Timeline for Child Welfare Agency and
Dependency Court Actions after a Child Enters Foster
Care
Figure 2: Estimated Number of Children under 18 of Inmates in
Federal and State Prisons between 1991 and 2007
Figure 3: AFCARS Data Capture Only Those Children Who Are
Removed from the Home and Placed into Foster Care Due
at Least Partly to the Incarceration of a Parent
Figure 4: Estimates of the Percentage of Incarcerated Parents
Reporting Care Arrangements for Children in 2002 and
2004 from BJS Surveys
Figure 5: Examples of Ways Child Welfare Agencies Can Work with
Incarcerated Parents
Figure 6: Flyer on Legal Rights and Responsibilities of Incarcerated
Parents
Figure 7: Reentry MythBusters Flyer
Figure 8: Responses from Selected State Corrections Agencies and
BOP on the Extent that Additional Assistance from DOJ
Would Be Useful
Figure 9: Potential Partners of Residential Drug Treatment
Programs

Page ii

6
8

13

17
23
31
38

41
59

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Abbreviations
ACF
AFCARS
ASFA
ASPE
BJS
BOP
CFSR
DOJ
HHS
PPW
RPG
RWC
SAMHSA

Administration for Children and Families
Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System
Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation
Bureau of Justice Statistics
Bureau of Prisons
Child and Family Services Reviews
Department of Justice
Department of Health and Human Services
Services Grant Program for Residential Treatment for
Pregnant and Postpartum Women
Regional Partnership Grant
Residential Treatment for Women and their Children
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

This is a work of the U.S. government and is not subject to copyright protection in the
United States. The published product may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety
without further permission from GAO. However, because this work may contain
copyrighted images or other material, permission from the copyright holder may be
necessary if you wish to reproduce this material separately.

Page iii

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

United States Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC 20548

September 26, 2011
The Honorable Jim McDermott
The Honorable Charles Rangel
House of Representatives
Some of our nation’s most vulnerable children are those who have been
removed from their homes and placed in foster care, often due to neglect
or abuse. 1 At the end of fiscal year 2009, 423,773 children were in foster
care, according to the most recent available data from the Department of
Health and Human Services (HHS). Some researchers and advocates
maintain that there has been a growth in the number of foster care
children with an incarcerated parent, due in part to an increase in the
number of incarcerated mothers over the years. While incarcerated
fathers made up more than 90 percent of the 809,800 parents in prison in
2007, according to the most recent estimates from the Department of
Justice (DOJ), the number of mothers in prison more than doubled from
1991 to 2007 (29,500 to 65,600, respectively). 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. They have further raised concerns about whether federal
foster care timelines for filing to terminate parental rights—intended to
place children more quickly into permanent adoptive homes—have
inappropriately affected these families, given the length of time some
parents are incarcerated. Meanwhile, although states and local agencies
have primary responsibility for administering child welfare services, the
federal government provides about $8 billion annually to states for child
welfare programs, including for foster care programs. 2 In addition,
corrections agencies at the local, state, and federal level may play a role

1
Children also enter foster care for other reasons, such as their parents’ illness, death,
disability, or incarceration, or because of the children's delinquent behavior and truancy.
2

Federal funding for state child welfare services and foster care programs is provided
under Titles IV-B and IV-E of the Social Security Act. 42 U.S.C. §§ 621, 629, and 670. To
be eligible for federal funding, states must comply with certain program requirements
imposed by these laws. In fiscal year 2010, of the $8 billion provided to states, $7.2 billion
was used for providing matching funds to states under Title IV-E of the Social Security
Act, primarily to maintain eligible children in foster care, provide subsidies to families
adopting children with special needs, and cover administrative and training costs.

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

in efforts to establish bonds between incarcerated parents and their
children through their policies and programs.
In this context, you asked us to address the following questions: (1) How
many children in foster care have an incarcerated parent? (2) What
strategies have child welfare and corrections agencies in selected states
used that could support contact or reunification, when appropriate,
between these children and their incarcerated parents? (3) In what ways
do HHS and DOJ help child welfare and corrections agencies in working
with these children and their incarcerated parents?
To address these questions, we used several methodologies. First, we
reviewed relevant national data on foster care children maintained by
HHS and on incarcerated parents from surveys, administered by DOJ’s
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), of inmates 3 in state and federal prisons
and local jails. We reviewed the methods and survey design used to
produce the data from both of these sources, as applicable, and, through
interviews with knowledgeable agency officials and our own analyses, we
determined that the data we used were sufficiently reliable for our
purposes. Second, we conducted structured telephone interviews with
state administrators of child welfare and corrections agencies in 10
selected states 4 to gather relevant information on the extent to which
states collect data on our target population, state policies and programs,
and officials’ perspectives on challenges and areas in which additional
federal assistance would be useful. States were selected to represent
nearly half of the prison inmates and foster care children in the United
States and for geographic variation. Some states were also selected
because they had been identified by researchers and professionals
knowledgeable on these topics as having strategies (policies, programs,
or practices) aimed at supporting parent-child ties either statewide or in
localities within the state. For these 10 states, we also reviewed selected
child welfare statutes and other policies. Third, to gather more in-depth
information at the local level, we conducted site visits in 4 of the 10 states
and interviewed local child welfare officials and caseworkers; dependency

3

Because these surveys are probability samples, the estimates are subject to sampling
error. We disclose this sampling error as 95 percent confidence intervals and present this
information along with the estimates in this report. See appendix I for more information on
these surveys and estimates.

4

The 10 selected states were Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska,
New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

court judges; 5 corrections staff primarily from prison facilities as well as a
few jails; community service providers; and, in a few cases, incarcerated
parents and former foster care youth. The information we gathered from
our phone interviews and site visits is not generalizable to all states and
localities. In addition, while we collected information about relevant
strategies used in our selected states, we did not review how widespread
these were practiced in each state. Fourth, we interviewed HHS and DOJ
officials knowledgeable about pertinent agency activities and reviewed
relevant federal laws, regulations, policies and other agency
documentation. Last, we interviewed researchers and professionals from
a range of national organizations, including family resource centers,
corrections associations, and child welfare organizations, and reviewed
available literature from these groups. See appendix I for additional
information on our methodology.

Background
Foster Care Children and
the Child Welfare System

A child generally enters foster care after a dependency court and a child
welfare agency have determined that the child should be removed from
his or her home, for reasons such as substantiated abuse or neglect. 6
Children in foster care may be temporarily placed in various types of outof-home care arrangements, including in a foster home with relatives, in a
foster home with nonrelatives, or in a group residential setting. Federal
law requires that state child welfare agencies consider giving preference
to placing children with qualified relatives, if consistent with the best
interest of the child. 7 Approximately one-quarter of children in foster care
in fiscal year 2009 lived with relatives, according to HHS data. 8

5

States may use different terms for the courts that handle foster care cases, including
family court, juvenile court, and dependency court. In this report, we use the term
“dependency court” to refer to all these types of courts.
6
For the purposes of this report, foster care means substitute care for children outside
their own homes for at least 24 hours, under the responsibility of the state child welfare
agency.
7

42 U.S.C. §§ 671(a)(19), 675(5)(A).

8

Excluded from these numbers are children who are cared for by relatives in informal
arrangements made by families outside of the child welfare system.

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Sample elements in a case plan relating to
parent-child contact or reunification
• Permanency goal (e.g., reunification)
• Services for child (e.g., counseling or
health services)
• Services for parents (e.g., parenting
classes or substance abuse or
mental health treatment)
• Visitation/communication schedules
(e.g., between parent and child)
• Target return dates, if reunification is
the goal
• Plans for alternative placement if
reunification goals are not met

Federal law also requires child welfare agencies to make “reasonable
efforts” to preserve and reunify families in most cases, 9 but leaves it to
states to define what these efforts entail, on a case by case basis.
However, at a minimum, child welfare agencies must make a diligent
effort to identify and notify all adult relatives shortly after the child’s
removal from the custody of the parent. 10 They must also develop a case
plan for each foster care child which, among other requirements, must
describe the services that will be provided to the parents, child, and foster
parents to facilitate the child’s return to his or her own home or permanent
placement, and address the child’s needs while in foster care. 11 The plan
may also specify goals for placing the child in a permanent home and the
steps that a parent (or the principal caretaker) must take before a child
can be returned home, if reunification is the goal.
In general, returning children to their home is the preferred goal of state
child welfare agencies, but this goal is still dependent on various factors,
such as the extent that a parent has completed rehabilitative treatment or
maintained a meaningful role in the child’s life through visits or other
forms of contact. In fiscal year 2009, about half of the nation’s children
who exited foster care were reunified with their parent or primary
caretaker (see table 1).

9

42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(15)(B).

10

42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(29). Some states may impose their own requirements to locate
noncustodial parents as part of a child welfare agency’s reasonable efforts to preserve
and reunify families.
11

42 U.S.C. §§ 671(a)(16), 675(1).

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Table 1: Outcomes for Children Exiting Foster Care in Fiscal Year 2009
Outcome
Reunification with parent or primary caretaker

Percentage of
total

Number of
children

51%

140,061

20

55,684

Adoption
a

Emancipation

11

29,471

Living with other relative

8

21,424

Guardianshipb

7

19,290

Other

3

8,849

Source: GAO presentation of HHS data.
a

Emancipation occurs when the child exits foster care because he or she has reached majority under
state law, such as by getting married or reaching a certain age, typically 18 to 21 years old. See 45
C.F.R. pt. 1355 app. A § II.
b

Legal guardianship is a court-ordered relationship which is intended to be permanent and involves
transferring some parental rights to the guardian, such as protection, education, caretaking, and
decision-making, but it does not require termination of all parental rights. It is considered a permanent
care arrangement under federal child welfare law. See 42 U.S.C. § 675 (5)(C)(i), 675(7).

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) was passed, in part,
in response to concerns about the length of time children were spending
in foster care and included provisions to facilitate child welfare agencies’
ability to place children more quickly into safe and permanent homes. 12
For example, the law requires child welfare agencies to hold permanency
hearings within 12 months of the child’s entering foster care to determine
the permanent placement for the child and requires child welfare
agencies to file a petition to terminate parental rights when a child has
been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months 13 (see fig. 1).
However, states are not required to file for termination of parental rights if
a child is in the care of relatives, the state has not provided necessary
services to the family consistent with the case plan, or the state agency
documents a compelling reason why filing for termination is not in the
best interests of the child. 14 These timelines and possible exceptions are
relevant for incarcerated parents who have children in foster care, as 44
percent of inmates released from state prisons in 2008 served sentences

12

Pub. L. No. 105-89, §§ 103(a), 302, 111 Stat. 2115, 2118, 2128.

13

42 U.S.C. § 675(5)(C)(i), (E).

14

42 U.S.C. § 675(5)(E)(i)-(iii).

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

longer than a year. 15 Since the enactment of ASFA, the number of
children in foster care nationwide has declined by more than 100,000,
based on HHS data collected on children in care at the end of each fiscal
year.
Figure 1: Sample Timeline for Child Welfare Agency and Dependency Court Actions after a Child Enters Foster Care

30 days after

Child removed
from home

Identifies and
notifies all
adult relatives

Court determines
that child should
be removed

60 days after

Within 6 months

Within 12 months

Continues to work with family on case plan
Develops case plan that
outlines steps needed to
reunify child with parent or
place in an alternative home

May approve foster
care placement and
case plan
Determines if
reasonable efforts to
prevent removal were
made or excused

Child welfare agency

Reviews status of case,
such as whether child’s
placement is still
appropriate and the
progress with case
plan goals

Holds a permanency
hearing to determine
whether reunification
or other option should
be pursued

Child has been in care for 15 of
the most recent 22 months

Petitions court to terminate
parental rights unless an
exception applies

Sometime later,
holds a hearing to
terminate parental
rights if determines
appropriate

Determines whether
reasonable efforts were
made to finalize the
permanency plan

Dependency court
Sources: GAO analysis of federal laws and other information sources.

Note: This timeline is illustrative. For example, it does not include instances in which a court
determines that reasonable efforts to reunify the family are not required or when a child is removed
through a voluntary placement agreement with the child’s parent or legal guardian. As a result, this
timeline may vary based on a child’s individual circumstances.

HHS administers federal grant programs and provides information,
training, and technical assistance to state child welfare systems. It uses
its Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS)
to capture, report, and analyze information collected by the states. On a
semiannual basis, all states submit data to HHS concerning all foster care

15
Of these inmates, about half served sentences of 1 to 2 years. These data are based on
the published report by Heather C. West, William J. Sabol, and Sarah J. Greenman,
Prisoners in 2009, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice
(December 2010).

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

children for whom state child welfare agencies have responsibility for
placement, care, or supervision. HHS also uses its Child and Family
Services Reviews (CFSR) to regularly evaluate state child welfare
systems’ conformity with federal requirements and help states improve
their provision of child welfare services. 16 These reviews examine a range
of outcomes and actions to assess states’ performance and enhance their
capacity to ensure children’s safety, permanency, and well-being. For
example, among many other factors, HHS examines states’ attempts to
preserve parent-child relationships and involve parents in discussions
about the child’s case plan. To help states provide child welfare services,
HHS offers states training and technical assistance through its Children’s
Bureau, as well as through its regional offices and various National
Resource Centers. HHS also provides information and resources through
its website, “The Child Welfare Information Gateway,” which is meant to
serve as a comprehensive information resource for the child welfare
field. 17

Children of Incarcerated
Parents and the
Corrections System

Many children, not only those in foster care, have an incarcerated parent,
and this number has grown over time. Since the early 1990s, the number
of individuals in prison almost doubled from a little fewer than 800,000 in
1991 to more than 1.5 million in 2009. Many of these individuals have
children. 18 As of 2007, an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of
18 had a parent in prison—an increase of almost 80 percent since 1991
(see fig. 2). Fathers comprise more than 90 percent of the parents in
prison and their numbers increased about 75 percent between 1991 and
2007. Meanwhile, the number of incarcerated mothers, who were more
likely to be primary caretakers before incarceration, more than doubled

16
CFSRs, which occur on a regular and recurring basis in every state (generally every 2 to
5 years depending on the results of the prior review), are the central and most
comprehensive component of federal efforts to determine state compliance with federal
child welfare requirements. HHS also reviews states’ progress related to areas found not
to be in substantial conformity with federal requirements based on the last CFSR,
generally on an annual basis.
17

See www.childwelfare.gov (accessed Aug. 24, 2011).

18

According to BJS, an estimated 52 percent of state inmates and 63 percent of federal
inmates were parents of children under the age of 18 in 2007. Information on incarcerated
parents in this section is from the published report by BJS: Lauren E. Glaze and Laura M.
Maruschak, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S.
Department of Justice (August 2008; revised in March 2010). See appendix I for
additional information on estimates from that report.

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during this time. 19 Children who are minorities are disproportionately more
likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children. In 2007,
compared to non-Hispanic white children, non-Hispanic black children
were more than seven times more likely to have a parent in prison and
Hispanic children were more than two times more likely.
Figure 2: Estimated Number of Children under 18 of Inmates in Federal and State
Prisons between 1991 and 2007
Number in thousands
1,800
1,600
1,400
1,200
1,000
800
600
400
200
0
1991

1997

2004

2007

Fiscal year
Children of mothers in prison
Children of fathers in prison
Sources: BJS estimates using data from surveys of inmates in federal and state prisons in
1991,1997, and 2004 and data from the prisoner custody populations by gender in each year.

Note: BJS estimated the number of parents and children in 2007 based on findings from the 2004
surveys and counts of the prisoner population in 2007 by gender.

Incarcerated parents may have a history of complex problems, such as
substance abuse, mental illness, or past trauma. For instance, in 2004,
about two-thirds of parents in state prisons met clinical criteria for having

19

According to BJS estimates, between 1991 and 2007, male inmates with children under
the age of 18 grew from 423,000 to 744,200. Meanwhile, female inmates with children
under the age of 18 grew from 29,500 to 65,600 during this time.

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substance dependence or abuse based on BJS’s most recent available
estimates. The federal government supports a number of residential
treatment programs that focus specifically on the treatment of parents
with substance abuse problems. Although these programs may require
parents with substance abuse problems to live away from home, they
generally serve nonincarcerated parents. (See app. II for more
information.) Mental health and medical problems were also common for
incarcerated parents, although women reported these at higher rates.
Incarcerated mothers were also much more likely than fathers to report
past physical or sexual abuse (64 percent for mothers in state prison
versus 16 percent for fathers).
The Second Chance Act of 2007 20 was enacted to, among other goals,
reduce recidivism and provide for services to assist people transitioning
back into the community from prisons and jails. The act amended existing
federal grant programs and established new grant programs for state
agencies and nonprofit organizations to provide a variety of programs or
services that include employment assistance, substance abuse treatment,
and help in maintaining or reestablishing family ties.
DOJ’s Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) oversees and establishes central
policy for 116 federal prison facilities, but it does not have authority over
or establish policies for state or local corrections agencies or facilities
(see table 2). Nevertheless, DOJ provides assistance to these entities in
the form of discretionary grants, technical assistance, and information.

20

Pub. L. No. 110-199, 122 Stat. 657 (2008).

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Table 2: Types of Correctional Facilities

Facility

Description

Overseeing body

Federal
prisons

Typically, inmates charged with or
a
convicted of federal crimes

BOP

State
prisons

Typically, inmates sentenced for
state crimes

State department of
corrections

Jails

Typically, inmates who are
pending trial, awaiting sentencing,
or serving a sentence that is less
than a year

Typically, local law
enforcementb

Number of
inmates at
year-end 2009
208,118
1,405,622
760,400

Source: GAO analysis of federal laws and information from DOJ.
a

Federal crimes are acts made illegal by federal law. In 2009, the majority of federal inmates were in
prison for drug-related and public-order offenses, including those involving immigration and weapons,
according to data from DOJ.
b

Some state corrections departments oversee some jail facilities in their state, such as by having
integrated systems which combine prisons and jails.

Foster Care Children
with an Incarcerated
Parent Are Not a WellIdentified Population,
but Available Data
Suggest They Number
in the Thousands

The complete number of foster care children with an incarcerated parent
cannot be identified in the database that HHS employs as part of its
oversight of state programs, but their numbers can be reasonably
estimated as being in the many thousands. HHS has proposed changes
to state reporting requirements that would shed more light on these
children; however, the department is currently in the process of revising
that proposal and officials had not yet determined if collecting additional
data on incarcerated parents will be included in the new proposed
requirements. Also, some states are attempting to better identify them
and to determine their needs.

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The National Foster Care
Data System Offers
Limited Information, but
Shows Thousands of These
Children Enter Foster Care
Annually

HHS data provided by states identified at least several thousand children
nationwide who entered foster care due to the incarceration of a parent in
a recent year, but this does not include the total population of foster care
children with incarcerated parents. Through its national data system,
AFCARS, HHS collects information about the characteristics and
experiences of children in the foster care system, such as their age, race,
and the factors associated with their removal from the home and
placement into foster care. 21 One potential reason for a child’s removal,
among many others listed in AFCARS, is the incarceration of a parent. 22
From this information, it is possible to identify some foster care children
with an incarcerated parent—those who have entered foster care solely
or in part for the reason of parental incarceration—but it is not possible to
identify these children in other circumstances (see figure 3). Our analysis
of AFCARS information identified approximately 14,000 children who
entered foster care at least partly because of parental incarceration in
2009 alone (about 8 percent of all children entering foster care in 2009); 23
however, this is an undercount of foster care children with an incarcerated
parent for several reasons. First, this number does not include children
who enter foster care in other circumstances, such as:


When a parent is incarcerated sometime before the child enters foster
care. For example, a child welfare official and a researcher told us
that some children are placed with a relative when a parent is
incarcerated, and then enter foster care when this relative-care
situation places the child at risk of abuse or neglect.

21

Additional information collected by AFCARS includes the length of stay in foster care, a
child’s most recent case plan goals, outcomes for children exiting foster care (such as
reunification with parent or adoption), and whether parental rights have been terminated.
22

AFCARS lists 15 actions or conditions associated with the child’s removal. The two most
common reasons in 2009 were neglect and drug abuse of the parent, while incarceration
was the seventh most common.

23

We also analyzed data on all children who were in foster care in 2009 (615,040 children
had an open foster care case at some point in 2009) and had entered such care in 2007
or 2008. Of these, parental incarceration was reported as a reason for approximately
30,000 children who had entered foster care in 2007, 2008, or 2009. While some of those
parents will not be incarcerated throughout their child’s stay in foster care, child welfare
agencies may need to work with those incarcerated parents at points during the child’s
time in foster care. For more information on our methodology, see appendix I.

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

When a parent is incarcerated sometime after the child enters foster
care. 24



When an incarcerated parent, such as a noncustodial father, was not
the child’s caretaker at the time of removal.

Researchers and local officials we interviewed noted that these
circumstances were more common than placement in foster care
specifically due to parental incarceration. While such additional
information about a parent’s incarceration may be in the child’s individual
child welfare case file, it is not reported in the data conveyed to HHS and
incorporated into AFCARS.

24

Some studies have found it more common for a mother to be incarcerated after the child
entered foster care. For example, DOJ’s National Institute of Justice funded a series of
studies that, in part, examined the timing and incidence of foster care placements for
Illinois children with incarcerated mothers. The study found that many foster care
placements preceded their mother’s arrests or incarcerations. See Haeil Jung, Robert
LaLonde, and Rekha Varghese, Incarcerated Mothers, Their Children’s Placement into
Foster Care, and its Consequences for Reentry and for Labor Market Outcomes, The
University of Chicago (2007). This finding was consistent with another study, of New York
mothers, which found that the vast majority of maternal arrests and incarcerations that
overlapped child placement started after the child’s placement in foster care. The study
reviewed children entering foster care from July 1996 to June 1997. See Timothy Ross,
Ajay Khashu, and Mark Wamsley, Hard Data on Hard Times: An Empirical Analysis of
Maternal Incarceration, Foster Care, and Visitation, Vera Institute of Justice (New York,
August 2004). While these studies were not recently completed, their findings were
consistent with what we heard from state officials we spoke with for this report.

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Figure 3: AFCARS Data Capture Only Those Children Who Are Removed from the
Home and Placed into Foster Care Due at Least Partly to the Incarceration of a Parent
Children in foster care
with an incarcerated parent,
regardless of reason for
removal from home
All children with an
incarcerated parent

All children in
foster care

AFCARS data capture only
those children whose removal
from the home and placement
into foster care were due at least
partly to the incarceration of a parent
Sources: GAO analysis of DOJ and AFCARS data.

Second, state reporting on these children for AFCARS is not necessarily
as complete as HHS requires. For example:


HHS’s AFCARS regulations require state child welfare caseworkers to
report all applicable actions or conditions associated with a child’s
removal from the home, but staff sometimes enter only one reason.
One state official and one local official told us that, even if
incarceration were involved, a case worker may opt for a more
general reason, such as neglect. 25

25
We also saw significant variety among states that regularly report this information.
Based on our review of fiscal year 2009 data, some states said that a child’s removal was
due solely or in part to parental incarceration in 1–2 percent of the cases, while some
other states selected this reason in about 20 percent of the cases. We do not know if this
variation reflects true variation in the underlying circumstances of removal or variation in
choices made by caseworkers when coding reasons for data collection purposes.

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

New York, which has the second largest foster care population in the
United States, has historically not reported data on any reasons for
removal due to some localities’ older data systems, according to HHS
officials. 26



Similarly, a few states can report information on only one reason for
removal due to older data systems and, therefore, have not regularly
reported instances in which a second reason might apply.

HHS officials noted that the department assists state efforts to comply
with AFCARS reporting requirements in several ways. For example, HHS
has assessed most states’ AFCARS information systems to determine
states’ abilities to collect, extract, and transmit AFCARS data accurately,
as well as to review the timeliness and accuracy of data entry by
caseworkers. When an HHS review team determines that a state does
not fully satisfy the AFCARS standards, the state must make corrections
identified by that team. HHS regional offices also work with states to
improve their reporting by implementing training, supervisory oversight,
and quality assurance, according to HHS officials.
The fact that foster care children of incarcerated parents are not a wellidentified population nationally precludes analyzing those children’s
characteristics and experiences, or determining whether they differ from
other foster care children in terms of their backgrounds, case
management, or outcomes.
Acknowledging that much of AFCARS information on the family’s
circumstances is gathered only at the time a child enters foster care—
when child welfare workers know the least about the family’s situation—
HHS, in January 2008, proposed changing its state reporting
requirements to require both additional and more current information. 27
Specifically, the department proposed collecting additional data on
circumstances that affect the child and family, such as a caretaker’s

26
New York is in the process of updating its case management system, according to HHS
officials, and started reporting a small amount of data on removal reasons in 2008. Based
on AFCARS data for fiscal year 2009, New York reported that 27 percent of its cases
include any removal reason and a little more than 1 percent of its cases included the
reason of parental incarceration. HHS does not currently assess penalties for a state not
reporting AFCARS data.
27

73 Fed. Reg. 2,082 (Jan. 11, 2008).

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incarceration, at multiple times throughout a foster care case. 28 However,
due to significant statutory amendments made in October 2008 to the
federal foster care and adoption assistance programs, 29 in 2010, HHS
announced plans to publish a new proposal to revise AFCARS and
solicited suggestions about what case-level data would be important for
agencies to collect and report to HHS. 30 HHS officials told us that they are
currently developing the new proposal for reporting requirements and
estimated that it would be issued for public comment in February 2012.
Officials had not yet determined whether the new proposed rule would
include the same requirements on gathering additional information on a
caretaker’s incarceration at multiple times throughout the foster care case
as had been included in the 2008 proposal. Officials also said that they
did not know when a final set of reporting requirements would be issued,
as such timing is, in part, dependent on the comments received in
response to the proposed rule.

DOJ Survey Data Suggest
Thousands of Foster Care
Children Have an
Incarcerated Parent

Although HHS data do not identify the complete number of foster care
children with an incarcerated parent, BJS inmate surveys from 2004 and
2002—the most recent years available—suggest that there are many
thousands of these children. Specifically, based on the 2004 survey of
federal and state prison inmates, we estimate that about 19,300 inmates
(about 13,700 men and 5,600 women) 31 had at least one child in foster or
agency care in 2004 and that the total number of these children likely

28

HHS also proposed collecting additional information on whether a parent or caretaker is
in prison (AFCARS currently explicitly asks only about parents or caretakers in jail),
though according to HHS officials we interviewed, caseworkers generally do not
distinguish between incarceration in jail or prison when deciding to enter incarceration as
a reason for removal from the home. Therefore, this part of the proposal may simply
clarify current practice.

29

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 made
amendments to Title IV-B and IV-E to support relative caregivers, improve outcomes for
foster care children, and improve incentives for adoption, among other purposes. Pub. L.
No. 110-351, 122 Stat. 3949.
30

75 Fed. Reg. 43,187 (Jul. 23, 2010).

31

The 95 percent confidence interval for this estimate is between 14,997 and 23,545
inmates. The 95 percent confidence interval for the estimate of fathers is between 10,058,
and 17,258 inmates, and the confidence interval for the estimate of mothers is between
3,281 and 7,939.

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exceeded 22,800. 32 Similarly, a 2002 survey of inmates in local jails
estimated that approximately 12,000 33 of these parents in jail had at least
one child in foster care or cared for through an agency in 2002. 34 These
surveys asked a nationally representative sample of inmates about their
children, the care arrangements for those children, and other questions
regarding their families’ circumstances and experiences. 35 The surveys
also found that a higher percentage of mothers have at least one child in
foster care; some state officials said that this is because fewer
incarcerated mothers, compared to incarcerated fathers, have the option
of having the other parent take care of the child (see figure 4).
Nevertheless, close to 90 percent 36 of all parents in state and federal
prison (mothers and fathers) with a child in foster care reported that they
had shared or had been providing most of the care for their child prior to
their incarceration, based on the 2004 survey.

32

Based our analysis of the 2004 surveys, we are 95 percent confident that the number of
state and federal inmates' children in foster care in 2004 exceed about 22,800. Please
see appendix I for additional information.

33
The 95 percent confidence interval for this estimate is between 4,634 and 19,060
inmates.
34

It is possible that inmates represented in the 2004 survey of federal and state prisoners
may also be represented in the 2002 survey of jail inmates, since inmates may progress
from pretrial jail to prison.

35

For more information on these surveys and their methodologies, see appendix I.

36

The 95 percent confidence interval for this estimate is between 87.8 and 91.5 percent.

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Figure 4: Estimates of the Percentage of Incarcerated Parents Reporting Care
Arrangements for Children in 2002 and 2004 from BJS Surveys
Percentage of parents
100
90
80
70
60
50
40
30
20
10
0

Incarcerated
mothers
(state and
federal prisons)

Incarcerated
fathers
(state and
federal prisons)

Incarcerated
mothers
(local jails)

Incarcerated
fathers
(local jails)

Foster home/agency
Other parent
Other relative
Margin of error
Sources: GAO analyses of data from BJS’s 2004 surveys of inmates in federal and state prisons and 2002 survey of inmates in local jails.

Notes: Statistics may sum to more than 100 percent because some prisoners had multiple minor
children living with multiple caregivers, including friends (not included in this chart). Error bars in this
figure display 95 percent confidence intervals for estimates.

Estimates of the number of inmates with children in foster care may be a
conservative indicator of the number of children of inmates that are in
foster care settings. This is because the inmate surveys do not fully
account for inmates who have more than one child in foster care. 37 Also,
some of the children reported as living with relatives may be in relative
care that is supervised by the child welfare system, according to two

37

See appendix I for additional information on calculating the number of these children not
captured in the prison and jail estimates.

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researchers we interviewed. Finally, prisoners may be generally reluctant
to report that they have children or provide information on their children
for various reasons, according to DOJ and several state and local
officials. 38 On the other hand, it is possible that incarcerated parents
surveyed could report on the same child, since both mothers and fathers
were survey subjects, though DOJ officials overseeing the survey and
data said this situation was probably rare.

Some States Are Gathering
Additional Data to
Understand the Population
Better

Several state child welfare and corrections agencies are collecting
additional data on foster care children with incarcerated parents to better
understand such children and their parental circumstances. Officials from
several states said that their state information is too limited to understand
the population and that more data would be useful to help policymakers
decide on policies or programs that might affect these children. Of the 10
state child welfare agencies we interviewed, three said they were
collecting additional data not required by AFCARS that could help identify
these children. For example, officials in New York’s child welfare agency
said the agency has begun to collect more information in its state child
welfare information system that would indicate whether the parent is in a
correctional facility, based on the parent’s address. 39 Moreover, officials
at two corrections agencies in states we interviewed said they were
collecting information on inmates’ children and their care arrangements
while the parent is incarcerated. 40 Oregon’s Department of Corrections,
for example, currently collects data on all prisoners regarding whether
they have children and their children’s living arrangements, though this
information is not housed in an automated system. Officials from

38
Officials we interviewed noted several reasons for prisoners’ reluctance, including a
concern that such disclosure could endanger their parental rights or create child support
payment obligations.
39
Although New York has begun to collect this information in its foster care data system,
caseworkers are not necessarily reporting this information, according to state officials we
interviewed. Officials said that the information is being collected in a new drop-down menu
and suggested it is not being used extensively because it is a new system.
40

In addition to states, federal prisons have initiated similar data collection efforts.
Specifically, the Second Chance Act provided that DOJ and BOP shall coordinate to
establish a federal prisoner reentry strategy to help prepare prisoners for release and
successful reintegration. As part of this strategy, BOP is required to collect information
about a prisoner’s family relationships, parental responsibilities, and contacts with
children. 42 U.S.C. § 17541(a)(1)(F). A BOP official said that BOP has entered this data
on more than 80 percent of the prison population.

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Oregon’s Department of Corrections said that, based on surveys and
interviews of offenders in Oregon state prisons in 2000, 2002, and 2008,
about 10 percent of incarcerated mothers and about 6 percent of
incarcerated fathers had children living in foster care. 41
Child welfare officials from California informed us that they have done
some limited analysis of the parental address information the state
collects, in response to a request from the California legislature to provide
numbers on the foster care children of incarcerated parents. 42 At our
request, California officials updated and expanded this research, and said
that 2,288 of California’s 52,561 children in foster care (about 4 percent)
had an incarcerated parent as of January 1, 2011. Of those children,
1,268 had an incarcerated father and 1,020 had an incarcerated mother,
according to the California officials. Officials also said that children with a
case plan goal of adoption were slightly more likely to have an
incarcerated parent than children with a goal of reunification. 43

41

An Oregon state official said that the state is planning another series of interviews with
incarcerated women and men beginning in late 2011.
42
In addition, in October 2009, California passed a law requiring social workers to make
reasonable efforts to collect and update data regarding a child’s incarcerated parent(s),
once the appropriate data entry fields are established in the statewide child welfare
database. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 16501.8.
43

About 5 percent of children with a case plan goal of adoption had an incarcerated
parent, versus about 4 percent of children with a goal of reunification, according to the
officials.

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Strategies for
Preserving Families
Include Flexibility in
Timelines for
Terminating Parental
Rights, Programs for
Parents, and
Interagency
Collaboration

In our examination of 10 states and their child welfare and corrections
agencies, we found states employed a number of strategies to support
family ties for all children of incarcerated parents, including some
strategies designed specifically for children in foster care. 44 These
strategies are intended to address some of the challenges incarcerated
parents may face related to maintaining their parental rights and contact
with their children or to aid caseworkers in managing such cases. 45 While
state and local officials discussed examples of these strategies, we did
not review how widely these strategies were used in each state, nor did
we evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies.

Several State Child Welfare
Statutes Specifically
Address the Special
Circumstances of
Incarcerated Parents
Termination of Parental Rights
Provisions

Federal law allows for exceptions on a case-by-case basis to the
requirement that states file to terminate parental rights when a child has
been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. 46 In addition to

44

As noted earlier, some of the 10 states were selected, in part, because they were
identified by researchers and professionals as having strategies (policies, programs, or
practices) aimed at supporting parent-child ties either statewide or in localities within the
state. Therefore, the presence of programs in these states is not, necessarily, indicative of
the prevalence of strategies in other states.
45

Unless noted otherwise, we did not review outcome studies for these strategies or
examine other sources of information to evaluate effectiveness.
46
Specifically, states are not required to comply with this requirement if a child is in the
care of relatives, the state has not provided necessary services to the family consistent
with the case plan, or the state agency documents a compelling reason why filing such a
petition is not in the best interests of the child. 42 U.S.C. § 675(5)(E).

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these federal exceptions, some of the 10 states included in our review 47
have enacted explicit statutory provisions 48 that could prevent or delay
filing for termination of parental rights for incarcerated parents in certain
circumstances. 49 For example:


Nebraska prohibits filing for termination of parental rights solely on the
basis that the parent is incarcerated. 50



California and New York require child welfare agencies and courts to
consider the particular barriers faced by incarcerated parents—such
as whether parents are able to maintain contact with their children or
whether they lack access to rehabilitative services that would support
reunification—when making certain decisions regarding termination.



New York and Colorado include provisions related to the requirement
to file for termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster
care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. New York allows child
welfare agencies to delay filing for termination beyond standard
timelines in certain cases where a parent is incarcerated. Specifically,
in 2010, New York amended its statute to provide that the child
welfare agency need not file for termination when a child has been in
foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months if, based on a caseby-case determination, the parent is incarcerated and maintains a
meaningful role in the child’s life. Colorado does not require courts to
consider the fact that the child has been in foster care for 15 of the
most recent 22 months when deciding whether to terminate parental

47
See appendix III for summaries of selected provisions from the child welfare statutes of
the 10 states that pertain to termination of parental rights and reasonable efforts to
preserve and reunify families. Citations to the state law provisions discussed in this report
are available in appendix III. In cases where state officials or other experts identified other
relevant statutes or case law outside the scope of our review, but relevant to the issues,
citations are included as footnotes in the text of the report.
48

Some states may impose similar requirements as a result of developments in case law
rather than through statute. Researching state case law was not within the scope of this
report. For more information about the methodology we used to research state law, see
appendix III.
49

However, some of the states in our review also have statutes providing that parental
incarceration can be a factor in establishing grounds for terminating parental rights, for
example, if the parent's sentence is for longer than a specified period of time.
50

Some states may impose a similar prohibition as a result of developments in case law
rather than through statute. For the purposes of this report we did not examine state case
law.

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rights if the reason for the child’s length of stay is due to
circumstances beyond the parent’s control, such as the parent’s
incarceration “for a reasonable period of time.” 51
While many of the state child welfare officials we spoke to said that
federal timelines were difficult to meet for parents serving lengthier
sentences, many state and local child welfare officials as well as child
advocacy representatives did not think that such timelines should be
changed specifically for incarcerated parents. Officials we spoke with said
these timelines are important for being able to place children, especially
younger children, as soon as possible into permanent homes. 52 On the
other hand, several local child welfare officials and caseworkers in New
York and California told us these exceptions can make the difference in
whether some parents can meet requirements in a case plan needed to
reunify with their children.

Reasonable Efforts Provisions

Federal law requires that child welfare agencies make reasonable efforts
to reunify foster care children with their families before filing for
termination; however, these efforts are subject to certain exceptions. 53 In
managing a foster care case involving an incarcerated parent, child
welfare agency staff may work with both the parent and corrections
officials at several junctures, as shown in figure 5.

51

However, Colorado statute also provides that a parent’s long-term incarceration, such
that the parent is not eligible for parole for at least 6 years (or 36 months in certain cases)
after the child was declared dependent or neglected, may be a factor in establishing
grounds to terminate parental rights.
52

In addition, states may establish timelines for permanency decisions that are shorter
than federal timelines. A few state officials said that their state timelines were more
problematic for incarcerated parents than federal timelines. State timelines for
permanency decisions were not included in our review of state law.

53

Specifically, a state is not required to make reasonable efforts to reunify the family if a
court determines that the parent has subjected the child to aggravated circumstances (as
defined in state law), the parent has committed certain enumerated crimes (such as
murder, voluntary manslaughter, or felony assault to the child), or the parental rights to a
sibling have been involuntarily terminated. 42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(15)(D).

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Figure 5: Examples of Ways Child Welfare Agencies Can Work with Incarcerated Parents

Child removed
from home

Continues to work with family on case plan
Identifies and notifies
all adult relatives

In trying to locate
adult relatives, child
welfare staff may find
that a noncustodial
parent is incarcerated
or need to speak to an
incarcerated parent to
get information about
possible relatives

Court determines
child should
be removed

Develops a case plan which may include:
Services to provide to parents
(e.g. parenting classes, substance
abuse treatment, counseling)

Reunification goals are set
(e.g. visitation schedules and
target return dates)

Child welfare staff may need to offer
services to an incarcerated parent
and ask corrections staff about
available services and the parent’s
participation in such services

Child welfare staff may
need to facilitate visits or
other communication
between an incarcerated
parent and child

May approve
foster care placement
and case plan

Reviews
status of case

Petitions court to terminate
parental rights unless an
exception applies

Holds a
permanency
hearing

Holds hearing to
terminate parental
rights if appropriate

Child welfare staff may facilitate the participation of incarcerated parents in court hearings regarding the foster care case
Child welfare agency
Dependency court
Sources: GAO analysis of federal laws and selected state laws, policies, and interviews with officials.

Federal law does not define what constitutes “reasonable efforts,” leaving
it to states to define, on a case-by-case basis. Among our selected states,
California and New York specify in statute54 what such efforts may entail
with regard to incarcerated parents,55 such as:

54

Other states may have developed requirements related to reasonable efforts for
incarcerated parents through case law; however, researching state case law was not
within the scope of this report.

55

However, some of the states in our review, including California and New York, also have
statutory provisions that may excuse the state child welfare agency from making
reasonable efforts for incarcerated parents in certain circumstances.

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

Maintaining the parent-child relationship. New York law directs the
child welfare agency to arrange for transporting the child to visit the
correctional facility, if it is in the best interests of the child. California
law provides examples of services that may be provided to
incarcerated parents, which may include such things as facilitating
parent-child telephone calls and transportation services, where
appropriate.



Involving the parent in the child’s case. Both states have statutes that
may permit the use of videoconference or teleconference in certain
circumstances, when such technology is available. 56 In New York an
incarcerated parent may use such technology to participate in
developing the family service plan, including the child’s permanency
plan. In California, courts may allow incarcerated parents to use it to
participate in certain court hearings. 57



Identifying rehabilitative services for the parent or documenting if such
services are not available. New York requires child welfare agencies
to provide incarcerated parents with information on social or
rehabilitative services, including wherever possible transitional and
family support services in the community to which they will return
upon their release. California requires the caseworker to document in
the case plan the particular barriers faced by incarcerated parents in
accessing court-ordered services (such as counseling, parenting
classes, or vocational training).

In 2008, California amended its law to allow courts to extend courtordered services for recently released parents who are making significant
progress in establishing a safe home for the child, if there is a substantial
probability that the child will be returned to the parent within the extended
period or if reasonable services were not provided to the parent. A few

56
Some states may provide for alternative means for incarcerated parents to participate in
court hearings under state court rules or case law, which were beyond the scope of our
review.
57

In California, courts may allow incarcerated parents who have waived their right to be
physically present at a hearing, or who have not been ordered by the court to be present
at a hearing, to participate in the hearing via videoconference, or if that technology is not
available, by teleconference. In addition, California officials told us that an incarcerated
parent's job placement, participation in court-ordered classes, or privileges should not be
jeopardized when the parent's absence is due to participation in a juvenile court hearing.
See Cal. Penal Code § 2625(d),(g), (h).

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caseworkers we spoke to considered this extension unfair to parents who
had not been incarcerated. On the other hand, a dependency court judge
we interviewed did not consider the law a “free pass” for incarcerated
parents, since her decision would, as in other foster care cases, balance
the likelihood that a parent could improve over time with a child’s
immediate need for stability.

Some State Agencies
Provide Guidance and
Training, and Some Local
Agencies Make Additional
Efforts to Involve Parents
in the Case or Contact
Their Children
Agency Guidance and Training

Five of the 10 state child welfare agencies we spoke to have developed
either statewide guidance or training on managing cases with children of
incarcerated parents. California and New York officials said their general
statewide training includes specific information for caseworkers on how to
work with incarcerated parents in accordance with their state laws. New
York officials said they also recently provided training on the new law that
excuses filing for termination of parental rights under the standard
timelines for certain incarcerated parents. Additionally, Michigan and
Florida state child welfare officials said that new guidance to local
agencies had resulted from recent state court cases involving
incarcerated parents who had successfully appealed the termination of
their parental rights. For example, Michigan officials reported holding a
statewide webinar and providing information to local agencies after the
Michigan Supreme Court reversed the termination of parental rights for an
incarcerated parent because, among other reasons, the child welfare
agency failed to provide sufficient reunification services. 58

Involving Parents and
Increasing Contact with Their
Children

State and local officials we interviewed reported a number of local
initiatives that have been undertaken by child welfare agencies,
dependency courts, and correctional facilities to address the logistical

58

In re Mason, 782 N.W.2d 747, 748 (Mich. 2010). While we did not independently
research case law, we did review state cases that were specifically mentioned to us by
state officials or other experts, as appropriate.

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barriers, expense, and disincentives involved when including an inmate in
a child’s foster care case. For example, when the prison facility is located
far from a county dependency court, transportation can be costly and
require an extended absence from the facility. In the latter case, the
parent can lose certain privileges or programming opportunities,
according to child welfare and corrections officials. To address these
barriers, dependency courts and several state prisons in Los Angeles,
California, initiated, under a recently enacted state law, 59 a pilot program
that allows an inmate to participate in certain child welfare hearings via
videoconference. Additionally, a few counties in Florida and
Pennsylvania, 60 while not guided by legislation, have begun to hold child
welfare hearings via video or telephone for incarcerated parents,
according to state officials. State officials we interviewed in Nebraska,
Florida, and Michigan and local officials in California also described
holding a child’s case planning meetings at the jail or including the parent
by phone in some situations. Further, to address some of the logistical
barriers to contact between these parents and their children, several local
child welfare agencies in New York and California said they used
assistants to help drive children to prisons or to supervise parent-child
visits. State child welfare officials in a few other states also said that they
had policies to provide prepaid phone cards to incarcerated parents or
policies to accept collect calls from the parents to discuss their child’s
case.

59
Cal. Penal Code § 2625(d),(g), 2626. The law authorized the state corrections agency to
accept technology donations for the purpose of implementing a program to facilitate
incarcerated parents’ participation in court hearings regarding their children.
60
The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts began efforts in 2008 to promote the
use of videoconference in the state's courtrooms, by providing training and installing
hardware. As of 2010, the Office has provided video conferencing equipment to all courts
in the state. Based on a recent survey it conducted in 2011, the Administrative Office of
Pennsylvania Courts reported that many court proceedings in the state were held via
videoconference each month and have resulted in cost savings from reduced court costs
associated with transporting inmates to proceedings.

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Corrections Agencies
Provided Programs and
Facilitated Parent-Child
Visits and Communication
Parenting and Rehabilitation
Programs
Parenting Inside Out Program

p'arenting

~

-oat"

..

.

_-_.._---

...................................-.
:._~

:::-:7.';~':.~."':"""'.-

Source: Children’s Justice Alliance.

Parenting Inside Out (PIO) is a behavioral
parent training program developed by the
non-profit Oregon Social Learning Center
and used by prisons and jails in Oregon.
PIO is offered for incarcerated or formerly
incarcerated parents in jails, prisons,
and community corrections programs.
Oregon’s child welfare department has
approved PIO as a parenting program for
their clients with open child welfare cases.
In addition, PIO was the subject of a five
year randomized controlled study funded
by the National Institute of Mental Health.
The study reviewed if participating parents
had more visits from children and families
during their incarceration and if they were
more likely to have an active role parenting
their children than the control group.
(See A Randomized Controlled Trial of a
Parent management Training Program for
Incarcerated Parents: Proximal Impacts by
J. Mark Eddy and Charles R. Martinez, Jr.
in Relationship Processes and Resilience in
Children with Incarcerated Parents.
Poehlmann & J.M. Eddy (Eds.), Submitted
for Publication.).

Officials with correctional departments we interviewed offered a range of
services to their general inmate populations relevant to parent
rehabilitation, such as parenting programs and substance abuse
treatment. However, the extent of such services varied among states and
facilities. Officials at all 10 state departments of correction we interviewed
reported having parenting classes in at least at a few facilities, although
most said such classes sometimes had wait lists and some were only at
women’s facilities. These parenting classes have been aimed at the
general inmate population, although officials from a few facilities we
visited told us that their parenting classes have covered the topic of
parental rights, which may be more applicable to parents with children in
foster care. Further, state corrections officials from Nebraska and Oregon
told us that their agencies had taken steps to align their parenting
curricula to meet child welfare standards and prevent parents from having
to retake these classes to satisfy child welfare requirements upon
release.
Some corrections agencies we interviewed also administered treatment
programs that allow incarcerated mothers to live with their young children
who were not in foster care. For instance, some BOP facilities allow
incarcerated women who are pregnant and meet certain criteria to go to a
community program outside the facility for 3 months after the child is born
in order to promote bonding and parenting skills. Likewise, officials in five
states reported having in-prison nurseries or similar programs in at least
one of their correctional facilities. In these programs, mothers live with
their infants at the facility for a period of time after birth, up to 18 months,
often receiving treatment and services, such as pre- and post-natal care,
parenting classes, and counseling. Eligibility criteria for mothers may
include being classified as a low security risk or having a limited amount
of remaining time on their sentence. A state prison official commented
that their facility’s 18-month nursery program affords mothers time to
make amends with family members who may be more willing to care for
the children while the mother completes her sentence. According to this
official, most of these mothers give their infants to family caregivers
without involving the child welfare system. In addition, state corrections
agencies in California and Nebraska have allowed young children to live
with their parents in residential drug treatment programs as an alternative

Page 27

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

to incarceration. For example, since 1999, California’s corrections
department has administered the Family Foundations Program which
provides substance abuse treatment and other services to mothers with
nonviolent convictions and sentences of 36 months or less.61

Visitation and Communication
Strategies
Videoconferencing visits in New York

Source: © May 2011 The Osborne Association;
photo by Jonathan Stenger.

The Osborne Association (Osborne), a
nonprofit community provider, working with
the New York Department of Corrections
recently set up video conferencing for
children to ‘visit’ with their incarcerated
parents. Osborne currently has an
agreement to conduct tele-visits with one
state women’s prison. Fifteen to 20 children
from 2–17 years of age currently participate
to varying levels in tele-visits lasting 45
minutes to an hour, according to Osborne
staff. During visits, parents and children
usually participate in activities or crafts
together similar to an in-person visit.

Some corrections agencies had general policies or programs to mitigate
the distance between prisoners and their families. Experts, advocates,
and officials from both child welfare and correctional agencies we
interviewed noted that the distance between incarcerated parents and
their families was a major challenge for preserving family ties, particularly
as prisons tend to be located far from urban areas. State corrections
agencies in California, Pennsylvania, and Florida have formal policies to
consider the location of an inmate’s family when assigning the inmate to a
facility. Circumstances such as mental health or security needs take
precedent over proximity to family, according to officials, and such
policies were generally not realizable for women due to the limited
number of female prison facilities. In addition, some corrections agencies
provided free bus transportation for families to visit inmates. For example,
New York and Pennsylvania’s departments of correction provide free or
subsidized bus transportation between large cities and prison facilities
hours away for children and adults visiting inmates.
Further, because on-site visits were not always possible, a few
correctional facilities in California, New York, and Pennsylvania were
starting to use technology so that incarcerated parents could visit virtually
with their children. Children participate through video equipment located
at community service organizations or other sites such as local parole
offices.

61

In September 2011, California began implementing a new program called the
“Alternative Custody Program” which is aimed at reuniting low-level offenders with their
families. The program, which is currently offered only to eligible women, allows nonserious, non-violent, and non-sex offenders to serve the remainder of their sentence in
certain community settings, such as a residential home, a residential substance abuse
treatment program, or a transitional care facility that offers individualized services. Cal.
Penal Code § 1170.05. See appendix II for more information on our review of family based
residential drug treatment programs for women who are not incarcerated.

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Visitation areas for children:
three different facilities in
the same state.

A designated child visiting area in
a state correctional facility for men.

A child friendly visitation area in a
female state correctional facility
where children can visit parents.

Also, most corrections agencies had strategies to make visiting prisons
more comfortable for children, sometimes specifically for foster care
children. Officials representing seven different state departments of
correction, as well as federal BOP officials, said that some of their
facilities (often at least half) had special child-friendly visiting areas—
particularly for women’s facilities. Several corrections agencies also had
special procedures and trained staff to meet visiting children at the
correctional facility entrance and guide them through a separate
screening process. Also, corrections agencies in New York, California,
Nebraska, and Colorado had specific policies for caseworkers and foster
care children, such as visiting hours on weekdays in addition to usual
weekend visitation so that caseworkers can transport the children.
Extended visitation programs that allow parents and children to visit within
the prison for longer periods of time, such as a full day or week, were
offered in at least a few facilities within 8 of our 10 states. Some of the
programs have bonding activities where parents work on reunification and
parenting strategies with their children. For example, corrections officials
from 3 of our 10 states told us that the Girls Scouts Beyond Bars program
occurred in one or more of their women’s prisons. 62 This program,
originally developed by DOJ, typically provides regular visits and
interaction between incarcerated mothers and their daughters. 63

A visitation area where any visitor,
including children, can visit inmates
who are not permitted contact visits.
This area is in located in the same
facility as the above photo.

A child friendly visitation area within
a federal female facility.
Source: GAO.

62
Corrections officials from two other states told us that have had the Girl Scouts Beyond
Bars program in the past in at least one of their women’s facilities but these programs
were eliminated due to reasons including budget cuts and limited numbers of volunteers.
63
The Girl Scouts Beyond Bars program began in 1992 as a demonstration project of
DOJ’s research and evaluation branch, the National Institute of Justice. Currently, this
program operates in a number of locations nationally, supported by various funding
sources, which in some locations may include grants administered by DOJ’s Office of
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Girl Scouts of the USA commissioned a
national evaluation of the program in 2008 that looked at whether program participants
reported improved mother-daughter relationships, among other things. See CSR, Inc.
Third-Year Evaluation of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Final Report, Girl Scouts of the USA
(New York, Mar. 31, 2008). GAO social scientists did not review the methods or results of
this study.

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Some Corrections and
Child Welfare Agencies
Have Collaborated to Align
Their Program
Requirements and Assign
Liaisons
State Level Collaboration

Child welfare and corrections officials in 6 of our 10 states collaborated at
the state level to clarify policies, develop procedures, and provide
information to staff. For example, in response to a recent state supreme
court case reversing the termination of parental rights for an incarcerated
parent, Michigan’s child welfare agency worked with state corrections
officials to draft a memorandum to prison supervisors on ways to support
child welfare staff who are working with incarcerated parents. Specifically,
the memorandum required that corrections staff allow inmates to
participate via phone in court hearings and planning meetings with child
welfare officials, when requested, and any programs that will help
improve their parenting skills. In New York, according to state officials, the
recent legislation on filing for termination of parental rights for
incarcerated parents was, in part, the impetus for the joint development of
protocols for ways state corrections and child welfare agencies should
coordinate. Per these protocols, child welfare staff must contact
corrections staff to schedule meetings with parents and arrange children’s
visits while corrections staff should return such calls within one week. The
agencies also collaborated to develop training on the protocols for their
respective staffs. New York’s state child welfare office also developed
materials on the legal rights and responsibilities of parents that child
welfare staff can use with incarcerated parents (see fig. 6).

Page 30

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

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Source: New York State Office of Children & Family Services.

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

In some instances, state legislation directed government agencies to
collaborate to meet the needs of children with incarcerated parents. In
Oregon, according to officials, legislation passed in 2001 led corrections
and child welfare agencies to collaborate to gather and share data,
conduct joint training and outreach sessions, and better coordinate

Page 31

~1" . f;i~(~!i'Ul~

services for released inmates. 64 More recently, officials from
Pennsylvania told us about a 2009 legislative resolution that directed the
creation of an advisory committee to study children of incarcerated
parents and recommend ways to assess their needs, the services
available to them, and the barriers to accessing those services. 65

Liaisons for Communication
between Local Agencies

Many of the child welfare caseworkers we interviewed cited difficulty
reaching staff at correctional facilities and navigating prison or jail policies
as a challenge. However, we were told in interviews about examples of
liaisons, in 5 of our 10 states, who facilitate communication between the
agencies. These liaisons understand the procedures and operations of
both agencies and work with officials to navigate each system and serve
as a single point of contact. For example, in California, Texas, and
Alabama, one or more state women’s prisons have employed a social
worker who helps child welfare caseworkers locate offenders or helps
inmates enroll in classes or services that the child’s case plan requires.
More commonly, we heard of examples of cooperation between county
jails and local welfare agencies due to their shared county jurisdiction and
being geographically close. For example, in San Francisco, California, a
liaison based at a county jail was responsible for notifying parents about
their case; facilitating parent-child visits; and providing updates to
parents, child welfare caseworkers, and jail staff about the visits. On a
larger scale, staff of New York City’s Children of Incarcerated Parents
Program, supported by the city’s child welfare agency, facilitate visits to
24 correctional facilities within New York. Such staff also prepare child
welfare staff and foster parents for visits with incarcerated parents.
Officials from agencies with liaison-type positions noted that they found
the relationship helpful.

64
The law created a planning and advisory committee for the years 2001 through 2003
composed of various government agencies, including child welfare and corrections, which
was charged with issuing recommendations on how to increase family bonding for children
with incarcerated parents. 2001 Or. Laws ch. 635 § 16. The legislature established a
similar committee from 2005 through 2007 on the well-being of children whose parents are
involved in the criminal justice system. 2005 Or. Laws ch. 497 § 1.
65

H.R. Res. 203, 2009-2010 Gen. Assem., Reg. Sess. (Pa. 2009).

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

HHS and DOJ Provide
Some Relevant
Information and
Assistance, but State
Agencies Are Not
Always Aware of
These Resources

HHS and DOJ each provide information and assistance to child welfare
and corrections agencies related to children with incarcerated parents,
albeit not usually focused on foster care children in particular. In the
course of its on-site reviews of state and local foster care systems,
however, HHS assesses whether state agencies have taken steps to
work with incarcerated parents. Both HHS and DOJ post information on
their websites relevant to practitioners working with children or their
incarcerated parents. However, some state child welfare and corrections
agencies we interviewed were not necessarily aware of these resources
or told us that more information would be useful. Although the Second
Chance Act gives DOJ discretionary authority to collect and disseminate
information on best practices in collaboration between state corrections
and welfare agencies, DOJ has not taken initiative in this area.

HHS Encourages Child
Welfare Agencies to Work
with Incarcerated Parents
but Has Not Promoted
Available Information
about Such Families

HHS examines how state and local child welfare agencies work with
incarcerated parents in the course of its regular and recurring state
performance reviews, the CFSRs. 66 For instance, one of HHS’s CFSR
instruments assesses whether agencies have “encouraged and facilitated
contact with incarcerated parents (where appropriate) or with parents not
living in close proximity to the child,” as part of its examination of a state’s
effort to strengthen parent-child relationships. 67 HHS’s most recent CFSR
reports for our 10 selected states (conducted between 2007 and 2010)
also afford evidence of this oversight. 68 For three states, HHS reviewers
cited instances in need of improvement, such as when child welfare
agencies in the state had not tried to facilitate visits between parents and

66

As of 2011, HHS had conducted the second round of CFSRs for all states, the District of
Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The timing of each state’s next CFSR is dependent, in part,
on the results of the last review. However, HHS examines, at least annually, states’
progress toward addressing areas found not to be in substantial conformity with federal
requirements.

67

This is specified as a component in item 16 of HHS’s CFSR on-site review instrument.
Item 16 looks at the “relationship of child in care with parents (interviews with child,
parent(s), foster parent(s), service provider(s)).”

68
For each of the 10 selected states, we looked at the final reports of the second round of
reviews. To write these reports, HHS examines a “statewide assessment” that includes
state data on safety and permanency outcomes for children in child welfare, and findings
from an on-site review. The on-site review is conducted by a joint federal-state team and
includes review of a sample of case records from multiple local child welfare agencies in
the state; interviews with children and families who have received services; and interviews
with caseworkers, foster parents, service providers, and community stakeholders, such as
the courts and community agencies.

Page 33

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

their children or needed to improve their efforts to locate and involve a
noncustodial incarcerated parent in case planning. HHS reviewers
commended agencies in six states for their efforts to work with
incarcerated parents, citing agencies in New York for facilitating parentchild visits, in Pennsylvania for enabling incarcerated parents to
participate in group decision-making meetings by phone, and in Alabama
for coordinating with other government agencies to help incarcerated
mothers reenter communities and reconnect with their children. 69
Most of HHS’s support for foster care children with incarcerated parents is
in the form of informational resources across multiple websites that are
not centrally organized. HHS’s Child Welfare Information Gateway posts
reports under topic areas labeled “Children in Out-of-Home-Care With
Incarcerated Parents” and “Services to Children & Families of
Prisoners.” 70 When we reviewed these websites, most publications listed
under these topic areas were from prior to 2006. Further, these topic area
websites did not cross-reference other HHS-supported websites with
more recent information. For example, HHS’s Office of the Assistant
Secretary for Planning and Evaluation has a list of citations on its website
under “Research and Promising Approaches” for families with
incarcerated parents. Additionally, the HHS-funded National Resource
Center for Permanency and Family Connections posts research studies
as well as various state-produced resources on how to work with foster
care children of incarcerated parents. 71 Although the Gateway is meant to
serve as a comprehensive informational resource for the child welfare
field, its relevant topic areas, such as “Children in Out-of-Home-Care With

69
In the CFSR reports for two selected states, HHS reviewers mentioned instances related
to working with incarcerated parents in which agencies could improve as well as instances
commended as strengths. In the reports of 3 of the 10 selected states, while reviewers
mentioned child welfare agencies’ efforts to work with incarcerated parents, they were not
clearly identified as a strength or an area for improvement.
70

See http://www.childwelfare.gov/outofhome/casework/children/incarcerated.cfm (last
accessed, Aug. 24, 2011) and
http://www.childwelfare.gov/famcentered/overview/approaches/prisoners.cfm (last
accessed, Aug. 24, 2011), respectively for these two sites under the Child Welfare
Information Gateway.
71
See
http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/info_services/children-of-incarcerated-parent
s.html (last accessed, Aug. 24, 2011) and
http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/info_services/download/
Working%20with%20incarcerated%20parents%20CWIG%20Bibliography.pdf (last
accessed, Aug. 24, 2011).

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Gender Informed Practice Assessment

Source: DOJ.

DOJ’s National Institute of Corrections is
developing a “Gender Informed Practice
Assessment” designed to help correctional
facilities develop policies and practices
that are appropriate for female offenders;
improve the safety and welfare of women;
and, ultimately, reduce recidivism.
Several items in the assessment recognize
the role of children in female offenders’
lives such as designing visitation areas
that are friendly and respectful to families,
providing programming that facilitates
healthy parent-child relationships,
and informing women of their legal rights,
including those involving custody of
their children. According to the National
Institute of Corrections, the assessment
was developed based on evidence-based
practices, standards in the field, and
expert recommendations. The institute is
developing the assessment in collaboration
with the Center for Effective Public Policy,
a nonprofit organization that provides
training and technical assistance to
practioners in criminal and juvenile
justice issues.

Incarcerated Parents,” did not cross-reference these other websites
where we found more recent information.
Moreover, we found that some of the state child welfare agencies we
interviewed were not aware of the HHS resources for working with foster
care children and their incarcerated parents. Officials from few of our 10
selected states had used or were aware that the Child Welfare
Information Gateway website had relevant information. Officials from four
states said that, while they had used this website for other resources,
they were not aware that it had any information about working with
children in child welfare and their incarcerated parents. Additionally, state
child welfare officials in 8 of the 10 states said they would like to have
more information for working with incarcerated parents. 72 In particular,
officials from several states said that they would like examples of what
might constitute “reasonable efforts” with such parents. Similarly, a
number of state child welfare officials we interviewed said that they would
like to know of promising practices used by other states or localities such
as how to better work with corrections agencies.
HHS has also administered two discretionary grant programs aimed at all
children with incarcerated parents or the incarcerated parents,
themselves. One is the Mentoring Children of Prisoners program,
authorized in 2002 in response to the growing number of children with an
incarcerated parent. Through one-on-one community-based mentoring,
the program was intended, in part, to help alleviate some of the
behavioral and academic risks that these youth face, as a result of their
parent’s incarceration and other related factors. 73 Until fiscal year 2010,
HHS received about $50 million annually to administer grants to public
and private entities operating the mentoring programs. 74 However, this

72
Specifically, state child welfare officials in 8 of the 10 states we interviewed said that
additional information on strategies to address permanency for children in foster care with
incarcerated parents used by other state or local child welfare agencies would be
moderately or very useful.
73

An HHS official who oversees the mentoring program said that children in foster care are
among the youth served by this program, but the agency does not track the extent to
which they are served.
74

In fiscal year 2003, it received initial funding of $10 million.

Page 35

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

program was not funded for fiscal year 2011, according to HHS officials. 75
The other program, known as the Healthy Marriage Promotion and
Responsible Fatherhood grant program, funds some projects which offer
parenting and family strengthening services for incarcerated and formerly
incarcerated fathers and their partners. HHS is currently evaluating 12
such grant projects for incarcerated fathers to determine their
effectiveness on outcomes such as marital stability, recidivism, and family
financial well-being. 76

DOJ Provides Some
Assistance and
Information to Corrections
Agencies to Help Families,
but Not on Ways to Work
with Child Welfare
Agencies

DOJ’s relevant information and assistance to corrections agencies largely
focuses on all offenders and their children. The department’s National
Institute of Corrections has provided information and technical assistance
to state corrections agencies, for example, on setting up in-prison nursery
programs, developing corrections training curricula about offenders’
children and families, and developing practices specifically for female
offenders, according to DOJ and state officials we interviewed. 77
Officials with 8 of the 10 corrections agencies we interviewed reported
using the National Institute of Corrections’ general resources related to
offenders with children. In addition, the National Institute of Justice—
DOJ’s research, development, and evaluation branch—has published and
funded research on children of incarcerated parents, some of which has
looked specifically at children in foster care.
DOJ has engaged in some activities related to children of incarcerated
parents under the Second Chance Act. For example, according to DOJ

75
In its budget request for fiscal year 2012, HHS noted that this program should be
reduced because many of the program’s mentoring matches were not sustained and
because research indicates that short term mentorships (e.g., less than 6 months) can
actually be detrimental for children.
76

According to HHS officials overseeing this evaluation, none of these grants is specifically
aimed at incarcerated fathers of children in foster care. For additional information on
HHS’s evaluation, see http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/08/MFS-IP/ (last accessed, Aug. 24, 2011).
For information on the Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood grant
program, see GAO, Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative: Further
Progress Is Needed in Developing a Risk-Based Monitoring Approach to Help HHS
Improve Program Oversight, GAO 08-1002 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 26, 2008).
77

The National Institute of Corrections is housed within the BOP and provides federal,
state, and local corrections agencies with information, training, and technical assistance.
Its online library lists some resources under “Children of Inmates.”

Page 36

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

officials, the department administered about $7.4 million in grants in fiscal
year 2010 to state and local government agencies serving incarcerated
adults to incorporate family-based treatment practices in their facilities. 78
A local sheriff’s department in California, for instance, reported using
grants from this program to support its jail-based parenting class program
among other activities to promote family relationships for incarcerated
parents who will reenter their communities. DOJ has also led the Federal
Reentry Interagency Council that supports reentry efforts by enhancing
communication, coordination, and collaboration across the federal
government. Other federal departments represented on the council
include HHS and the U.S. Departments of Labor, Education, and Housing
and Urban Development. The council recently undertook an education
campaign to clarify federal policies regarding the families of incarcerated
or formerly incarcerated individuals, by producing one-pagers entitled,
“Reentry Myth Busters.” One such leaflet, developed through
collaboration between HHS and DOJ, cites as “myth” the belief that child
welfare agencies are required to terminate parental rights for incarcerated
parents and explains that federal law gives child welfare agencies and
states “discretion to work with incarcerated parents, their children and the
caregivers to preserve and strengthen family relationships.” 79
(See figure 7.)

78

These grants were awarded as part of the Family-Based Prisoner Substance Abuse
Treatment grant program created by the Second Chance Act, which authorized DOJ to
make grants to states for family-based substance abuse treatment programs as
alternatives to incarceration, and to provide prison-based family treatment programs for
incarcerated parents of minor children. 42 U.S.C. § 3797s.
79

See
www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/.../Reentry_Council_Mythbuster_Parental_Rights.
pdf (last accessed, Aug. 24, 2011).

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Figure 7: Reentry MythBusters Flyer

REENTRY

MYT

Source: Federal Interagency Reentry Council.

However, beyond this activity, DOJ has not taken initiative to act on a
provision of the Second Chance Act that authorizes DOJ, at its discretion,
to collect and disseminate information on best practices for collaboration
between child welfare and corrections agencies to support children of
incarcerated parents, including those in foster care, and to support

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parent-child relationships, as appropriate. 80 According to officials from the
National Institute of Justice, which would be responsible for implementing
this provision, no specific activities are planned. Officials said that no
funds have been appropriated specifically for this provision, and although
DOJ did receive a $10 million research appropriation in fiscal year 2010
that could have been used to fund activities under this provision, that
money was primarily used to fund three evaluation research grants
related to reentry programs. These officials maintained that the National
Institute of Justice has long supported research on children of
incarcerated parents, typically in collaboration with HHS; nevertheless,
neither it nor the National Institute of Corrections has taken steps to
identify and disseminate examples of successful collaboration between
child welfare and corrections agencies, as authorized by the act.
BOP has also not developed any protocols to the federal prisons under its
own jurisdiction for working with child welfare agencies and their staff.
BOP has established some national standards and protocols for all of its
facilities, such as for parenting classes and visiting areas. However, it has
not set such protocols for how its facilities should deal with child welfare
agencies trying to meet the needs of inmates with children in foster care,
according to officials from BOP’s Central Office. Although we found a few
state and local corrections agencies that had taken initiative to facilitate
communication with child welfare agencies, such as by having a
designated point of contact, we did not find these efforts in the two federal
prisons we visited. Moreover, a number of child welfare officials, local
caseworkers, and dependency court judges told us that it can be
particularly difficult to establish appropriate contact with federal prisons
and several said that more collaboration from federal prisons would help
facilitate their work with foster care children with incarcerated parents.
Several judges we interviewed said that it could be difficult to have federal
inmates participate in child welfare dependency hearings, for example,
because prison officials were unresponsive. Several local child welfare
officials said that it was challenging to reach staff at a federal prison to get
information on an incarcerated parent. Neither of the two federal facilities
we visited had a designated staff position or a process for handling child
welfare inquiries. Officials from one facility said that, at any one time, a
different official might field questions from child welfare workers or
inmates with children who are involved in child welfare. A few

80

42 U.S.C. § 17553.

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incarcerated mothers with whom we spoke said corrections staff vary as
to how helpful they are, and they expressed the view that a designated
position would be helpful. Further, BOP Central Office officials said that
establishing protocols on how its facilities should deal with child welfare
agencies could enhance or facilitate communication between the two
parties. This is in keeping with one of BOP’s strategic planning goals that
aims to build partnerships with other entities to help improve the
effectiveness of its services and promote reintegration of offenders into
communities. 81
Moreover, among the officials from the 10 state corrections agencies and
the BOP who we interviewed, 8 said that additional information from DOJ
on how child welfare and corrections could better collaborate to address
these children and their families would be very useful. Officials said that
corrections agencies would benefit from practices that could improve
prison visits for foster care children, tools that could facilitate
communication between child welfare and corrections staff, and ways to
share their data on affected families. State corrections and BOP officials
we interviewed told us that they could use additional information from
DOJ on other practices, programs, or policies that would support family
ties between offenders and their children. (See fig. 8.)

81

One of BOP’s strategic planning goals is to build partnerships with community, local,
state, and federal agencies to improve the effectiveness of the services it provides to
offenders and constituent agencies. Part of this goal involves the “active participation by
BOP staff to improve partnerships,” which “will allow the BOP to carry out its mission
within the criminal justice system and to remain responsive to other agencies and the
public.” BOP states that these partnerships will help establish a supportive environment
that promotes the reintegration of offenders into the community.

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Figure 8: Responses from Selected State Corrections Agencies and BOP on the
Extent that Additional Assistance from DOJ Would Be Useful
Responses
Information on or examples of prison
policies regarding offenders with children
(e.g., visitation or communication)

5

Information on or examples of
programming for offenders with children
(e.g., parenting classes, or nursery programs)

4

2

7

Facilitation of information sharing among
corrections agencies on practices to support
offenders’ contact with their children

7

Additional research on programming
or services for offenders with children

8

Information on ways to collaborate or
coordinate with child welfare agencies

8

Training resources for corrections staff
related to offenders with children

1

3

1

2

1

2

9
2
4
0
Number of responses

3

1

1
6

8

1
10

12

Very useful
Moderately or somewhat useful
Slightly useful
Not at all
Source: GAO structured interviews with officials of 10 state corrections agencies and the BOP.

Conclusions

For children in foster care with an incarcerated parent, reunification is
often not possible or appropriate, especially if the prison sentence is long
or the parent-child tie is already compromised by abuse, neglect, or other
complex problems such as substance abuse. Yet, for children and
parents who have the potential for reunification or who would benefit from
maintaining their parent-child ties, the lack of information about these
cases may affect policymakers’ decisions and limit opportunities to
improve these families’ outcomes. Given concerns about whether
incarcerated parents can maintain their parental rights under federal child
welfare timelines, as well as state legislation to address the special
circumstances of children with incarcerated parents, the lack of complete
data leaves legislators less able to assess the impact of these policies on
this group of children.

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Meanwhile, although not seemingly widespread, pockets of activity
among child welfare agencies, corrections departments, courts, and
community providers are occurring that may support children in foster
care and their incarcerated parents. As evidenced by the Second Chance
Act, there is growing attention in the field of corrections on keeping
offenders connected with their families to facilitate reentry and, ultimately,
lower recidivism. Many parties may be interested in learning about new
ways to serve the often invisible children in child welfare with incarcerated
parents and to help address some of the serious challenges that these
children face. Given fiscal constraints and competing demands placed on
agencies at every level, however, initiatives made on behalf of these
families are likely to be hindered without information about existing
practices and available resources that they could leverage. Moreover,
while this group of children and their parents are likely a relatively small
part of the larger systems of child welfare and corrections, they are
greatly affected by these systems and their practices. Without more
proactive efforts to create awareness and share information about these
families, opportunities to improve their future may be easily overlooked.

Recommendations

We are making two recommendations to the Secretary of Health and
Human Services:
1. To better understand the magnitude of the population and inform
federal or state initiatives that affect children in foster care with
incarcerated parents, the Secretary of HHS should identify ways to
strengthen the completeness of state-reported data on those children.
For example, in implementing new reporting requirements for the
AFCARS system, the agency could take into consideration its 2008
proposed changes in which states would be required to provide
additional information on each foster care child and his or her family
circumstances, including a caretaker’s incarceration, at several times
during the child’s stay in foster care and not only when a child first
enters care.
2. To improve outcomes for these children, the Secretary of HHS should
take steps to more systematically increase awareness among state
and local child welfare agencies about available resources for children
in child welfare with incarcerated parents. For example, HHS could


Page 42

take steps to update and more centrally organize relevant
information posted on the Child Welfare Information Gateway,
which is meant to serve as a comprehensive information resource

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

for the child welfare field, such as by regularly updating the
information listed under the Gateway’s relevant topic areas (e.g.,
“Children in Out-of-Home-Care With Incarcerated Parents”) with
links to more recent material posted on other HHS-supported
websites;


identify or provide additional information on promising
approaches, such as those listed by the Office of Assistant
Secretary for Planning and Evaluation;



use relevant findings from the CFSR process as an opportunity to
remind states about available resources and post information on
promising approaches identified in the reviews; or



facilitate awareness among all child welfare agencies about HHS’s
available resources through an e-mail or a teleconference/webinar
that would allow state and local agencies to share information on
practices or strategies.

We are also making two recommendations to the U.S. Attorney General:
1. To better address the needs of children with incarcerated parents,
including those in foster care, the U.S. Attorney General should
consider including—among DOJ’s ongoing and future information
collection and dissemination efforts—activities that would assist state
and local corrections agencies share promising practices for these
children, including those that involve communication and coordination
with child welfare agencies. For example, using some of the
informational resources it already makes available to state and local
corrections agencies, DOJ could compile and publicize examples of
successful collaboration between corrections and child welfare
agencies.
2. To improve collaboration between federal correctional facilities and
state and local child welfare agencies and help federal inmates
maintain important family relationships, the U.S. Attorney General
should direct BOP to consider developing protocols for facilities
regarding offenders who have children in the child welfare system.
These protocols could include:


Page 43

responses/actions when child welfare agency workers contact
BOP facilities to confirm an inmate’s location, request to
communicate directly with inmates, or inquire about inmates’

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

current or future participation in programs or services that may be
part of a child welfare case plan;


processes for responding to requests for inmates’ participation in
child welfare hearings or ways to facilitate participation when
desired by the inmate, such as setting up teleconferencing
abilities; or



whether facilities could designate a specific staff position to
address all such inquiries or questions, including those from child
welfare agencies, dependency courts, or offenders.

If developed, these protocols could be shared with states and local
corrections agencies as examples.

Agency Comments
and Our Evaluation

We provided a draft of this report to HHS and DOJ for review and
comment. HHS’ comments are reproduced in appendix IV. DOJ did not
provide written comments; however, in an e-mail dated September 13,
2011, from the agency liaison, DOJ agreed with our two
recommendations for the department. HHS and DOJ also provided
written technical comments which we incorporated as appropriate.
In its comments, HHS concurred with our two recommendations for the
department. Specifically, HHS agreed that it was important to better
understand the circumstances and needs of foster care children with
incarcerated parents and would consider our recommendation on
strengthening state-reported data in developing the final rule for
AFCARS. HHS also agreed with our recommendation to more
systematically increase awareness of available resources to improve
outcomes for these children. For example, HHS said it would take steps
to update and more centrally organize relevant information posted on the
Child Welfare Information Gateway, as well as facilitate awareness
among child welfare agencies and states about available resources, such
as through newsletters or links to new information. HHS also agreed that
it would use relevant findings from the CFSR process as an opportunity to
remind states about available resources and post information about
promising approaches.
Finally, both HHS and DOJ noted that, as part of their participation on the
Federal Interagency Reentry Council, they would continue to collaborate
to clarify policies, remove barriers, and promote promising practices in
order to help ex-offenders reintegrate into their communities. Both

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agencies noted that addressing issues on children and families with an
incarcerated parent was a core part of this collaboration and that they
would work together to help criminal justice and child welfare systems
make well-informed decisions for affected families.
We will send copies of this report to appropriate congressional
committees and the Secretary of HHS, the U.S. Attorney General, and
other interested parties. The report also will be available at no charge on
the GAO website at http://www.gao.gov.
If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please contact
me at (202) 512-7215 or brownke@gao.gov. Contact points for our
Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on
the last page of this report. Key contributors to this report are listed in
appendix VI.

Kay E. Brown
Director, Education, Workforce,
and Income Security Issues

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

To address the objectives of this study, we used a variety of methods.
Specifically, we

HHS and DOJ Data
Sources



examined pertinent data from two federal data sources;



conducted phone interviews with 10 state child welfare and
corrections agencies and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), and
reviewed relevant state laws and policies pertaining to children in
foster care with incarcerated parents;



conducted site visits in 4 of the 10 phone interview states; and



conducted interviews with federal agencies, as well as professionals
from a range of national organizations, including family resource
centers, corrections associations, and child welfare organizations.

To examine the extent to which the Department of Health and Human
Services (HHS) collects information on the number of foster care children
with incarcerated parents, we reviewed relevant national data on children
in foster care from HHS’s Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and
Reporting System (AFCARS). HHS uses AFCARS to capture, report, and
analyze information collected by the states concerning all foster care
children for whom the state child welfare agency has responsibility for
placement, care, or supervision, and all adopted children who were
placed by the state agency or for whom the state agency is providing
adoption assistance, care, or services. We looked at the AFCARS
variable that denotes “parental incarceration” as a reason for a child’s
removal from the home and entry into foster care, which is the only
variable in AFCARS that captures information about parental
incarceration.
We reviewed AFCARS data for all cases that were active in fiscal year
2009 and had useable information on reason codes (615,040 in all), the
most recent data available, and identified cases in which children had
been removed from their home and entered foster care for reasons
including a reason of parental incarceration. 1 For all of these cases active

1

Rather than analyze data from only those cases active at the end of fiscal year 2009
(423,773), which HHS does in some of its annual reports, we analyzed data from all cases
that were active in fiscal year 2009 in order to review a larger number of cases.

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

in 2009—regardless of when the child most recently entered foster care—
42,890 cases (about 7 percent) were children who were removed solely
or in part due to the incarceration of a parent. We analyzed active 2009
cases by the year that the child entered foster care, to get an indication of
how prior years’ cases that involved an incarcerated parent as a reason
for entry could accumulate. 2 (See table 3.)
Table 3: Children Removed from Home Due At Least Partly to Parental
Incarceration, 2009 Open Cases, by Year of Removal, 2007–2009
Total number of children
with active cases at
some point in 2009

Number of these children for
whom parental incarceration
was a reason for removal

2009

189,921

14,346

2008

143,795

9,736

2007

87,255

5,956

Total

420,971

30,038

Year removed
from home

Source: GAO analysis of AFCARS data.

We excluded from our analyses any case that did not contain data on the
reason the child was removed from the home, those cases with
problematic entry dates (such as entry dates occurring subsequent to exit
dates), and data from three states that contained almost no cases that
identified “parental incarceration” as a reason. 3 Taken together, we
excluded about 11 percent of all cases from our analyses. To confirm the
reliability of these data, social science methodologists at GAO reviewed
documentation about the collection and reporting of AFCARS data and
conducted electronic testing of AFCARS data. We also interviewed
relevant HHS officials to clarify data elements, procedures, and reasons
for missing information. The AFCARS data were found to be sufficiently
reliable for the purposes of this engagement.
In addition to our review of the AFCARS data, we also reviewed relevant
national data on incarcerated parents and their children from surveys of

2

As mentioned in the body of this report, sentence lengths vary, so we do not know how
many of these parents continued to be incarcerated.

3
In fiscal year 2009, Illinois, Oregon, and Wyoming listed less than 1 percent of their cases
as children being removed from their homes due at least partly to parental incarceration.
We could not confirm if these states had very low incidences of these cases or if the low
rate was related to data reliability issues.

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

inmates in state and federal prisons and local jails, administered by the
Department of Justice (DOJ) through its Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
We used these surveys to estimate inmate characteristics, such as the
percentage of inmates with minor children reported to be in foster care or in
other placement settings. 4 Specifically, we estimated numbers and
characteristics of inmate populations using the 2004 Survey of Inmates in
Federal Correctional Facilities, the 2004 Survey of Inmates in State
Correctional Facilities, and the 2002 Survey of Inmates in Local Jails. 5
We also used these surveys to estimate a conservative lower bound on
the number of children of inmates who are in foster care. 6 Based on our
analysis of the 2004 surveys, we are 95 percent confident that the
number of state and federal inmates’ children in foster care in 2004
exceeded about 22,800. Further, based on the 2002 survey of jail
inmates, we are 95 percent confident that between 4,634 and 19,060
inmates had at least one child in a foster care setting in 2002. While the
jail inmate survey covers a different time period than the federal and state
inmate survey, it does provide an indication that additional children of
inmates (beyond what was found in the state and federal inmate surveys)
may be in foster care settings.

4

Because these estimates are derived from probability samples, this particular sample is
only one of a large number of samples that could have been drawn. Since each sample
could have provided different estimates, we express our confidence in the precision of
these particular samples’ results as a 95 percent confidence interval (i.e., plus or minus a
certain number of percentage points). This is the interval that would contain the actual
population value for 95 percent of the samples we could have drawn. The 95 percent
confidence intervals are provided along with estimates in this report.

5

In each case, the survey was the most recent data available. We calculated confidence
intervals from standard errors developed using generalized variance estimates as
described in the prison surveys’ documentation, and BJS calculated these intervals on our
behalf for the jail surveys, due to certain data restrictions.

6

We conservatively estimated the number of children in foster care based on inmate
responses to questions about how many minor children they had and whether any were in
a foster home or in an agency. For example, the survey asks how many children the
inmate has, but does not collect information on the number of children in each of the
possible care locations. So, if a respondent had several children and also reported that
some children were living with a relative and that some were in a foster home, we would
conservatively count just one child in a foster care location. The one-sided 95 percent
confidence interval for this estimate provides a conservative lower bound on the number
of state and federal inmates’ children in foster care in 2004.

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

In addition, for background purposes, we present BJS published
estimates of the number of inmates and children of inmates for 1991,
1997, 2004, and 2007. 7 Although the BJS report describes its estimation
methodology and several adjustments 8 that were made to produce
estimates that would be comparable over several years, it does not
include estimates of sampling error for those estimates. However, we
were able to calculate and report the confidence intervals for other
estimates produced from the 2004 surveys elsewhere in this report. Since
the 1991–2007 estimates are based on similar surveys and on
information developed from the 2004 survey, we report these BJS
estimates for background purposes only and without accompanying
confidence intervals.
BJS data are limited because they do not distinguish between children’s
temporary or permanent living arrangements, including various types of
relative care, such as relatives who provide foster homes overseen by the
child welfare system, relatives who are informally caring for children with
no involvement of the child welfare system, and relatives who serve as
permanent legal guardians. BJS data also do not fully distinguish
children’s current living arrangements when inmates are reporting on
multiple children. Additionally, as noted in this report, some prisoners may
be inclined to under report how many minor children they have for various
reasons, such as avoiding having to pay child support, according to
several state and DOJ officials we interviewed. Finally, BJS surveys are
conducted intermittently, limiting our ability to compare results across
years. A GAO social science analyst with expertise in survey methods
and a statistician reviewed the methods and survey design used in these
studies and, through interviews with knowledgeable DOJ and BJS
officials and our own analyses, we determined that the data we used
were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this engagement.

State Phone Interviews

We administered structured telephone interviews to both the state child
welfare and corrections agencies in 10 selected states. We selected
these states based on several criteria (see table 4). First, states were
selected to represent nearly half of the total foster care and prison

7

Lauren E. Glaze and Laura M. Maruschak, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children,
the Department of Justice (August 2008).

8

Because of estimation methods used in that report, those estimates produced may not be
comparable to other published BJS estimates.

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

populations in the United States (47 and 48 percent, respectively). We
selected the six states with the largest child welfare population, which are
also among the highest in terms of state prison populations. 9 Other states
with smaller populations of foster care children and prisoners were
selected for variation. Additionally, selected states differed in their
geographic location and whether child welfare services in the state were
administered at the state or local level. Finally, some states were selected
because they were identified in our interviews with researchers and
professionals knowledgeable on these topics as having policies,
programs, or practices aimed at supporting parent-child ties at the state
level or in localities within the state. We also administered the corrections
phone interview to officials from BOP’s Central Office.
Table 4: Information on Selected States
Percentage of total
U.S. foster care
populationa

Percentage of total
U.S. prison
populationb

Type of child welfare
administrationc

California

15%

12%

Local

New York

6

4

Local

Texas

6

12

State

Florida

5

7

State

Michigan

4

3

State

Pennsylvania

4

4

Local

Oregon

2

1

State

Colorado

2

2

Local

Alabama

2

2

State

Nebraska

1

0.3

State

State

Sources: HHS data, DOJ data, and American Public Human Services Association information.
a

On September 30, 2008.

b

On June 30, 2009.

c

Local means child welfare services are administered by localities, usually counties, and supervised
by the state. State means that child welfare services are administered and supervised at the state
level.

For our interviews, we developed two structured protocols—one for child
welfare officials and one for corrections officials. Using these protocols,

9

California, Florida, New York, and Texas have the highest, and Michigan and
Pennsylvania have the 7th and 8th highest prison populations of all states.

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

we asked officials about the extent their agencies track whether foster
care children have an incarcerated parent or whether inmates have
children and if their children are in foster care. Additionally, we asked
about relevant statewide policies, challenges to supporting family contact
or reunification, and strategies employed in their state that may help
address challenges. Last, we inquired about relevant types of federal
assistance received and areas in which additional assistance might be
useful. We developed our protocols by interviewing researchers,
professionals, and associations, as well as reviewing their documents and
other literature. In addition, we asked several researchers and
professionals we interviewed to review our protocols and pretested these
protocols with child welfare and corrections officials in one state. We
asked these parties for input on the clarity and objectivity of the questions
and whether respondents could provide the information we sought and
revised the protocols, accordingly. 10
In addition to our interviews with state officials, we reviewed selected
child welfare statutes and policies of our 10 selected states. For example,
we examined whether state child welfare statutes related to federal
requirements, such as efforts to reunify children in foster care with their
families and timelines to file for termination of parental rights, included
specific guidelines for incarcerated parents. Our review was limited to
state child welfare statutes pertaining to termination of parental rights and
reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify the family; we did not examine
other statutes, regulations, or case law, unless specifically identified as
relevant by state officials or other experts. See appendix III for summaries
of the selected provisions of the 10 states’ child welfare statutes and
more detailed information on our methodology in conducting and verifying
this research. We also verified other relevant corrections and child
welfare policies identified through our state phone interviews by reviewing
agency documents.

10

For each phone interview, one team member entered officials’ responses into a webbased data collection tool. Another team member who also participated in the interview
would subsequently review the information entered for accuracy. As needed, we also
conducted follow-up with officials to clarify responses, seek additional information, and
request agency documents.

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

Site Visits

To gather more in-depth information from local child welfare agencies,
correctional facilities, and others, we conducted site visits to four of the
ten states we interviewed: California, New York, Oregon, and Texas. We
selected these states because they capture a large portion of the foster
care and prison populations nationally, represent geographic variation,
and include some states with promising or innovative strategies at the
state or local level, as identified by researchers and professionals
knowledgeable on the subject. We also based these selections on the
type of child welfare program administration (state administered and
locally administered with state supervision); the number of children in
foster care; the number and security level of inmates in the facility; and
recommendations from experts we interviewed.
In each state, we spoke with local child welfare officials from at least two
localities, one large urban area and one non-urban county when possible.
Specifically, we met with local child welfare officials and staff in San
Francisco and Stanislaus counties in California; Dutchess county and
New York City in New York; Marion, Multnomah, and Washington
counties in Oregon; and Bell and Harris counties in Texas. During these
interviews, we collected information on state and local processes for
collecting and reporting data, policies and procedures, and challenges
and strategies related to cases specifically involving children in foster
care with incarcerated parents. We also interviewed several dependency
court judges, attorneys, and community organizations that provided
services for foster care children. Across the states, we interviewed
officials at nine state prisons (seven women’s and two men’s), two federal
women’s prisons, and three local city or county correctional facilities or
jails. 11 At most correctional facilities we were able to tour the facility, and
in a few instances we observed their implementation of strategies such as
nursery programs and parenting classes. At a few facilities, we also
interviewed inmates about contact with their children and, if children were
in foster care, their interactions with child welfare agencies or the courts.
On the basis of our site visit information, we cannot generalize our
findings beyond the states or localities we visited. Information we
gathered on our site visits represents only the conditions present in the
states and local areas at the time of our site visits. We cannot comment

11
We visited more female facilities because of the greater likelihood that female inmates
have children in foster care.

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

on any changes that may have occurred after our fieldwork was
completed.

Interviews with Agencies,
Researchers, and Others

We interviewed officials from HHS and DOJ about their programs
pertaining to foster care children with incarcerated parents, and reviewed
relevant federal laws, regulations, guidance, and other agency
documentation. Additionally, we interviewed researchers and
professionals from a variety of national organizations, including family
resource centers, corrections associations, and child welfare
organizations, and reviewed available literature from these groups. These
included the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law,
the American Public Human Services Association, the Annie E. Casey
Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, American
Correctional Association, the National Center on Substance Abuse and
Child Welfare, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges,
the National Resource Center for Children and Families of the
Incarcerated, National Resource Center on Permanency and Family
Connections, the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, and the Sentencing
Project, among others. We also interviewed two former foster care youth
whose parents had been incarcerated. In addition, two analysts, one with
specialized expertise in social science, reviewed several studies (one
unpublished) and found them to be sufficiently reliable for our purposes.

Children with Parents in
Residential Drug
Treatment Programs

To describe the approaches and outcomes of residential drug treatment
programs that may support family reunification presented in appendix II,
we interviewed staff from four family-centered residential drug treatment
programs. We conducted site visits to three of the programs and their
community partners in Maryland and Illinois and interviewed officials with
the fourth program in California via telephone. During the site visits, we
toured program facilities; spoke with representatives from the programs’
community partners, such as social services agencies and transitional
housing providers; and also spoke with some program clients. In selecting
these four family-centered residential drug treatment programs, we
considered criteria including expert recommendations, receipt of federal
grants, and geographic location. We obtained expert recommendations
on specific programs to interview from a number of federal and nonprofit
organizations. Those organizations include several offices within HHS—
such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
(SAMHSA), the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE)—and nonprofit
organizations, such as the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. Staff with

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Appendix I: Scope and Methodology

SAMHSA, ACF, ASPE, and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights
provided examples of family-centered treatment programs that
emphasized family reunification or program evaluation. In addition, during
our interviews with officials from SAMHSA, ACF, ASPE, and the Rebecca
Project for Human Rights, we discussed the practices of family-centered
residential drug treatment programs and federal efforts to fund and
evaluate them.
We reviewed relevant HHS reports on substance abuse and child welfare,
family-centered treatment for women with substance abuse disorders,
and best practice guidance for substance abuse treatment. We reviewed
grant documentation for two federal grant programs that fund and
evaluate family-centered residential drug treatment programs: the
Services Grant Program for Residential Treatment for Pregnant and
Postpartum Women administered by SAMHSA and the Regional
Partnership Grant Program administered by ACF. We chose to focus on
these programs because they target family-based treatment for parents
and their children, as opposed to other grant programs that provide funds
for different treatment types and populations. To describe the outcomes
that these programs track and assess, we reviewed grant documentation,
including the notices of funding availability, grant evaluations, and the
Regional Partnership Grant program’s First Annual Report to Congress.
We also reviewed documents from the four residential treatment
programs that we contacted, which included descriptions of program
rules, practices, and outcome studies.
We conducted this performance audit from July 2010 through September
2011 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing
standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to
obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for
our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe
that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings
and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities
HHS estimates that approximately one-third to two-thirds of children
involved in the child welfare system have at least one parent with a
substance abuse problem, such as alcohol abuse or drug addiction. 1 In
addition, a study of 2,639 clients from 44 drug treatment programs in
California reported that 29 percent of these parents had one or more
children removed from their custody by child welfare services. 2 Children
whose parents have substance use disorders may experience parental
neglect and be at risk of social, emotional, and behavioral disorders.
Parents with substance use disorders, including those who come to the
attention of the child welfare system—predominately mothers—may face
additional challenges such as co-occurring mental disorders and
involvement with the criminal justice system. Successfully addressing the
multiple needs of these parents and their children takes time, which, as
with children with incarcerated parents, can conflict with the timelines set
by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 to make decisions about a
child’s permanent placement and to file for termination of parental rights.
Historically, women with children have faced barriers to entering
substance abuse treatment programs. In our past work, we noted that
state child welfare directors were dissatisfied with the low level of
services, including substance abuse treatment services, provided to atrisk families in the child welfare system. 3 In addition, we noted that,
according to state child welfare directors, families living in impoverished
neighborhoods often do not have access to substance abuse treatment
services, which can in turn influence their children’s entry into the child
welfare system. 4 HHS has funded programs that allow eligible parents

1
See, The Department of Health and Human Services, Blending Perspectives and
Building Common Ground (April 1999). In addition, researchers at Chapin Hall at the
University of Chicago drew upon National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being data
from 2000 to estimate that 61 percent of infants and 41 percent of older children placed in
foster care had at least one caregiver affected by substance abuse. See F. Wulczyn, M.
Ernst, and P. Fisher, “Who Are the Infants in Out-of-Home Care? An Epidemiological and
Developmental Snapshot,” Chapin Hall Issue Brief, (May 2011).
2
See, University of California, Los Angeles, California Treatment Outcome Project Final
Report (2003).
3

GAO, Child Welfare: Additional Federal Action Could Help States Address Challenges in
Providing Services to Children and Families, GAO-07-850T (Washington, D.C., May 15,
2007).

4

GAO, African American Children in Foster Care: Additional HHS Assistance Needed to
Help States Reduce the Proportion in Care, GAO-07-816 (Washington, D.C.: July 11,
2007).

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

with substance use disorders to bring their children into treatment with
them, such as SAMHSA’s Services Grant Program for Residential
Treatment for Pregnant and Postpartum Women (PPW). According to
SAMHSA officials, this program is designed to expand the availability of
sustainable, comprehensive quality treatment, recovery support, and
family services for pregnant and postpartum women and their children
age 17 and under. This program, which SAMHSA funds and oversees, is
implemented by private nonprofit and public drug treatment providers and
targets low-income women. 5
In contrast to corrections facilities, some residential drug treatment
programs allow mothers to bring at least some of their children to live with
them during treatment. 6 Some of these programs employ a familycentered treatment approach, more formally known as the
Comprehensive Substance Abuse Treatment Model for Women and their
Children, which SAMHSA describes as:


often long-term and residential;



focusing on an individualized treatment plan for each woman;



addressing the full range of each woman’s needs, in addition to
substance abuse;



focusing on the relationships in the woman’s life, including her role as
mother;



including a wide variety of integrated services, some of which may be
available to children and other family members; and



sensitive to culture and gender.

5

According to SAMHSA, although implemented by private nonprofit and public drug
treatment providers, each PPW project uses a comprehensive service system, which
consists of multiple memoranda of agreements with key agencies and organizations that
have a role to play in prevention, treatment, and recovery.

6

The number of children a woman can bring with her to treatment varies, as does the age
range of the children permitted by the centers.

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

Family-centered residential drug treatment programs use a variety of
approaches to strengthen and reunite families. 7 Officials from four familycentered residential drug treatment programs we interviewed told us that
these programs help strengthen and reunite families by, among other
things:


Allowing children to reside with their mothers. According to drug
treatment program officials, the possibility that women can bring at
least some of their children with them removes a significant barrier to
treatment: reluctance to enter treatment if their children do not have a
safe place to stay. In addition, some women are reluctant to enter
treatment because they fear that as a result of doing so, they will lose
custody of their children. Having them close by, such as at an on-site
childcare center, decreases these fears and makes it more likely that
a woman will stay in treatment and overcome her substance abuse,
according to program officials.



Focusing on long-term recovery. In contrast to short-term drug
treatment programs, which may consist of a brief, hospital-based
inpatient phase and some outpatient follow-up, family-centered
residential drug treatment programs can last up to 24 months. During
this extended time, the programs attempt to address long-term,
underlying issues in an effort to foster lasting recovery and thus
heighten the chances of family reunification. In this effort, these
programs aim to help women build new coping strategies and social
networks, as well as strengthen their relationship with their children by
teaching them parenting skills. By recognizing that addiction is cyclical
and chronic, these programs help women learn how to overcome
relapses and move toward long-term recovery. In addition, once the
women graduate, some programs continue to provide extended
assistance to help them transition out of the program, such as
temporary housing or access to ongoing support networks and
therapy.



Addressing mental health needs, including trauma. Extensive mental
health services offered by the family-centered treatment programs we
examined better position women for the work needed to help them
recover and rebuild their families, according to program officials. For

7

See appendix I for additional information on the methods we used to describe these
programs.

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

example, such programs help women identify, acknowledge, and
appropriately respond to traumatic events in their lives. According to
treatment program staff and federal officials, many women in longterm residential drug treatment have experienced some form of
trauma or suffer from other mental health problems, which in turn can
influence their substance use. Programs may also help children, who
may also be traumatized from living in an environment where there is
substance abuse or from having been removed from their homes by
child welfare officials.


Offering a variety of supportive services to children and other family
members. According to federal and drug treatment program officials,
offering a variety of services to family members can help promote a
more stable recovery since a woman’s recovery is often dependent on
the health of her family, broadly defined. Some programs offer
services specifically aimed at children, such as early intervention
programs for preschool children and parenting programs that enable
both mothers and fathers to hone their parenting skills. Other
services, such as education and employment programs, aim to help
families by making family members stronger and more self-sufficient.



Collaborating extensively with other state and local agencies.
Because family-centered residential drug treatment programs
collaborate extensively with other agencies and organizations with
which women come into contact (see fig. 9), they are able to better
address complex family needs, according to program and federal
officials.

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

Figure 9: Potential Partners of Residential Drug Treatment Programs

Court system

Child welfare agency

Courts may refer clients to treatment
centers as a condition for maintaining
or regaining custody

Refers clients to treatment centers,
often as part of the agency's efforts
to preserve or reunify the family

Health care
providers

Child development
specialists

Provide medical
care to women
and their children

Screen children for
developmental disabilities
and refer to or provide
appropriate services

Drug treatment
program

Public school system

Housing providers
Identify and provide
transitional housing
for drug treatment
program graduates

May provide education to
women, their school-age
children, and at-risk
pre-school children

Other vocational and academic
education providers

Employment support services
May help program graduates
find employment

Help educate women and their family members
and prepare them for the job market

Source: GAO analysis of data from HHS, drug treatment programs, and drug treatment program partners.

According to an official from one treatment program, the program’s
collaboration—joint monitoring and assessment of women’s progress—
with a local family dependency court helps heighten the prospects for
family reunification. Drug treatment program staff and state officials also
told us that drug treatment programs and child welfare agencies
frequently collaborate, and that child welfare and court officials tend to
view a woman’s participation in the family-centered treatment programs
positively for the woman. In addition to collaborating around the needs of
the women and their children, treatment programs may work closely with
child welfare agencies to educate them about the nature of substance
abuse and to provide insight into the extent to which a woman’s relapse
may endanger her children. Finally, program officials told us that their
collaboration with other service providers, such as the public school

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

system and agencies specializing in children’s developmental disabilities,
also helps them better leverage their own skills and resources to support
the whole family.

Outcomes for Women in
Residential Drug
Treatment Programs

The federal government has funded a number of grants that support and
assess family-centered residential drug treatment programs. For
example, SAMHSA’s PPW grants support the development of treatment
programs, including residential treatment programs, to serve mothers with
substance use disorders and their children aged 17 and under. In the
PPW program, grantees are required to track information about, among
other things, the woman’s substance use, involvement with the criminal
justice system, mental health, and living arrangements. Grantees also
collect limited information on the women’s children, including the total
number of children per woman, the number of children living with
someone besides the woman due to a child protection order, and the
number of children for whom the woman’s parental rights have been
terminated.
SAMHSA funded a cross-site analysis of the PPW program and an earlier
grant program, the demonstration grant program for Residential
Treatment for Women and Their Children (RWC), that examined data
collected from 1996 to 2001 from more than 1,000 women at 50 RWC
and PPW programs. 8 To assess the treatment outcomes, the study
compared women’s responses at admission interviews to their responses
at follow-up interviews, which were administered 6 months after their
treatment ended. The study found that 6 months after treatment ended
women reported fewer instances of substance use, fewer arrests, fewer
mental health problems, and higher rates of employment. Regarding child
outcomes, the study found fewer children living in foster care and that
most of the children who accompanied their mothers to the RWC or PPW
programs were still living with their mothers 6 months after treatment.
Although these findings suggest that RWC- and PPW-funded drug
treatment programs may lead to some positive outcomes for women and

8

Between 1993 and 1995, HHS awarded 5-year grants for 70 PPW and RWC projects,
which provided residential treatment for mothers and their children. From 2003–2009,
HHS continued the PPW program, providing 3-year grants for up to $500,000 each for 55
projects. In fiscal year 2011, HHS anticipates awarding up to 19 PPW grants. See Center
for Substance Abuse Treatment, RWC/PPW Cross-site Evaluation, Caliber Associates
(Rockville, MD, 2003).

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

their children, according to study’s authors, the cross-site study was not
designed to demonstrate that the treatment actually caused those effects.
In 2006, ACF began implementing the Regional Partnership Grant (RPG)
program, which provides 3- or 5-year grants to support partnerships
among child welfare and other organizations, including drug treatment
agencies, to increase well-being, enhance safety, and improve
permanency outcomes for children placed in or at risk of being placed in
out-of-home care because of a parent’s substance abuse. 9 Among the 53
partnerships that received RPG funding in 2007, 21 include programs that
provide family-centered residential drug treatment services. The drug
treatment programs that received RPG funding must also collect
information related to a subset of 23 performance indicators pertaining to
the women, children, and families in their programs (see table 5). HHS
uses those performance indicators to gauge grantees’ progress on
meeting their programs’ intended goals.
Table 5: RPG Performance Indicators
Child performance indicators
Children at risk of removal remain in home
Occurrence of child maltreatment
Average length of stay in foster care
Re-entries to foster care placement
Timeliness of family reunification
Timeliness of child permanency actions
Improved child well-being
Prevention of substance-exposed newborns
Access to supportive services
Adult performance indicators
Access to treatment
Retention in treatment
Substance use level
Access to supportive services
Employment status

9

In 2007, HHS awarded grant funds ranging from $500,000 to $1,000,000 to 53 RPG
grantees for 3-year or 5-year projects.

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Appendix II: Children with Parents in
Residential Drug Treatment Facilities

Child performance indicators
Criminal behavior
Mental health status
Family performance indicators
Increased parental capacity
Improved parent-child/family interactions
Decreased child maltreatment risk factors
Access to coordinated case management
Substitute caregiver access to services
Regional partnership capacity indicators
Increased service collaboration
Increased service capacity
Source: HHS.

Note: Adult performance indicators include parents and/or caregivers.

HHS requires RPG grantees to conduct evaluations to determine program
outcomes, and most grantees designed evaluations that use treatment
and comparison groups, allowing them to compare outcomes of families
in family-centered residential treatment to outcomes of families in other
forms of substance abuse treatment. Of the 21 RPG grantees that
provide family-centered residential drug treatment services, 16 designed
evaluations that use treatment and comparison groups. Since the grant
period for the RPG program began in 2007 and may last up to 5 years,
ACF officials anticipate that all RPG grantees will submit final evaluation
results by December 31, 2012. Subsequently, the agency plans to
present the evaluation results in a series of reports to Congress. 10

10

ACF’s report entitled Targeted Grants to Increase the Well-Being of, and to Improve the
Permanency Outcomes for, Children Affected by Methamphetamine or Other Substance
Abuse: First Annual Report to Congress contains additional information about the RPG
program, including the process for selecting outcome measures and program evaluation
design.

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Appendix III: Provisions from Selected State
Statutes on Termination of Parental Rights and
“Reasonable Efforts” That Specifically
Address Incarcerated Parents

Appendix III: Provisions from Selected State Statutes
on Termination of Parental Rights and “Reasonable
Efforts” That Specifically Address Incarcerated Parents
This appendix provides summaries of selected statutory provisions that
specifically address termination of parental rights and reasonable efforts
to preserve and reunify families for child welfare cases involving
incarcerated for the 10 states included in our study. The 10 selected
states were Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska,
New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The information contained
in this appendix is not intended to be an exhaustive summary of all laws,
regulations, or case law related to children in foster care with incarcerated
parents for these states.
To compile this appendix, we searched legal databases for state statutes
on termination of parental rights and reasonable efforts that specifically
refer to incarcerated parents. 1 The provisions we identified are
summarized briefly in tables 6 and 7. These summaries may omit some
details from the cited provisions and are not intended to reflect all aspects
of state law. In addition, these summaries do not reflect the federal
requirements for states that receive federal child welfare funding. They
also do not include the requirements of other state statutes, regulations,
or case law that may directly or indirectly apply to families with
incarcerated parents. We provided these summaries to knowledgeable
state officials in each state for their verification, and the information in this
table was verified to be accurate as of August 2011.

1

During the course of our work, state officials or other experts we interviewed occasionally
identified additional statutes or cases that, though related generally to issues involving
incarcerated parents, were outside the scope of our review. We incorporated discussions
of these laws and cases, as appropriate, in the body of the report, but they are not
reflected in this appendix.

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Appendix III: Provisions from Selected State
Statutes on Termination of Parental Rights and
“Reasonable Efforts” That Specifically
Address Incarcerated Parents

Table 6: Selected State Statutory Provisions Related to Incarcerated Parents and the Termination of Parental Rights
State

Provisions related to incarcerated parents and the termination of parental rights

Alabama

One factor the court shall consider when determining whether to terminate parental rights is the parent’s conviction of
and imprisonment for a felony. Ala. Code § 12-15-319(a)(4).

California

Courts are directed to consider the barriers faced by incarcerated parents when deciding whether to set a hearing to
consider terminating parental rights. For example, if the child was initially removed because the parent is incarcerated
and cannot arrange for the child’s care, and the court finds that the parent has failed to contact and visit the child, the
court may schedule a hearing to terminate parental rights. The court shall take into account any particular barriers to a
parent’s ability to maintain contact with his or her child due to the parent’s incarceration. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code §
366.21(e).

Colorado

The court may find one of the following as the basis for unfitness of the parent (which is one factor for finding grounds
to terminate parental rights):
Long-term confinement such that the parent is not eligible for parole for at least 6 years after the date the child was
adjudicated dependent or neglected; or
If the child is under 6 years old at the time the petition to terminate parental rights is filed in response to reported child
abuse, long-term confinement such that the parent is not eligible for parole for at least 36 months after the child was
adjudicated dependent or neglected.
Colo. Rev. Stat. § 19-3-604(1)(b)(III).
In determining whether there are grounds to terminate parental rights, the court shall consider the fact that the child
has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months, unless the reason for the length of the child’s stay in
foster care was due to circumstances beyond the control of the parent, such as incarceration of the parent for a
reasonable period of time. Colo. Rev. Stat. § 19-3-604(2)(k)(IV).

Florida

Grounds to terminate parental rights may be established when the parent is incarcerated and:
the parent is expected to be incarcerated for a substantial portion of the period of time before the child turns 18;
the parent has been determined by the court to be a violent career criminal, habitual violent felony offender, or sexual
predator, has been convicted of 1st or 2nd degree murder or felony sexual battery, or has been convicted of any
substantially similar offense in another jurisdiction; or
the court determines that continuing the parental relationship would be harmful to the child and, for this reason,
termination of parental rights is in the best interest of the child.
Fla. Stat. § 39.806(1)(d).

Michigan

The court may order termination of parental rights if it finds that the parent is imprisoned for such a period that the
child will be deprived of a normal home for more than 2 years, the parent has not provided for the child’s proper care
and custody, and there is no reasonable expectation that the parent will be able to provide proper care and custody
within a reasonable time considering the child’s age. Mich. Comp. Laws § 712A.19b(3)(h).

Nebraska

A petition to terminate parental rights shall not be filed on behalf of the state if the sole factual basis is that the parent
or parents are incarcerated. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 43-292.02(2)(b).

New York

The child welfare agency is not required to file for termination of parental rights when the child has been in foster care
for 15 of the most recent 22 months if, based on a case by case determination—the parent or parents are
incarcerated, or the parent’s prior incarceration is a significant factor in why the child has been in foster care for 15 of
the most recent 22 months—provided that the parent maintains a meaningful role in the child’s life and the agency
has not documented a reason why it would otherwise be appropriate to file for termination of parental rights. N.Y. Soc.
Serv. Law § 384-b(3)(l)(i).

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Appendix III: Provisions from Selected State
Statutes on Termination of Parental Rights and
“Reasonable Efforts” That Specifically
Address Incarcerated Parents

State

Provisions related to incarcerated parents and the termination of parental rights
The court shall consider the special circumstances of incarcerated parent(s) when determining whether a child is a
“permanently neglected child” (one factor in establishing grounds to terminate parental rights), including the particular
constraints that may impact the parent’s ability to substantially and continuously or repeatedly maintain contact with
the child and plan for the future of the child. These include limitations placed on family contact and the unavailability of
social or rehabilitative services to aid in the development of a meaningful parent-child relationship. N.Y. Soc. Serv.
Law § 384-b(7)(a).

Texas

The court may order termination of parental rights if it finds that the parent knowingly engaged in criminal conduct
resulting in the parent’s conviction of an offense and imprisonment and inability to care for the child for 2 years or
more from the date of filing the petition. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 161.001(1). The court must also find that termination
of parental rights is in the best interests of the child. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 161.001(2).
Source: GAO analysis of selected state child welfare statutes, as verified by state officials.

Notes: For the remaining two states included in this review (Oregon and Pennsylvania), we were
unable to identify any specific statutory provisions related to incarcerated parents and the termination
of parental rights. However, that does not mean that requirements related to this issue have not been
developed through other sources, such as state regulations, case law, or policy.
Because the following provisions are federal requirements for every state that receives federal funds
under Titles IV-E and IV-B of the Social Security Act, this table does not include: (1) the provisions of
the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) which require state agencies to file for
termination of parental rights when a court has determined that the parent has committed specified
crimes or the child is an abandoned infant, 42 U.S.C. § 675(5)(E); and (2) the three exceptions under
ASFA to the requirement for states to file for termination of parental rights when the child has been in
foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months—when the child is in the care of relatives, the state
has not provided necessary services to the family consistent with the case plan, or the state agency
documents a compelling reason why filing for termination is not in the best interest of the child, 42
U.S.C. § 675(5)(E)(i)-(iii). Similarly, because the following provisions are federal requirements for
every state that receives federal funds under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, this
table also does not include the provisions which require every state to include as grounds for
termination a conviction of the parent for specifically enumerated crimes, 42 U.S.C. §
5106a(b)(2)(B)(xvii).

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Appendix III: Provisions from Selected State
Statutes on Termination of Parental Rights and
“Reasonable Efforts” That Specifically
Address Incarcerated Parents

Table 7: Selected State Statutory Provisions Related to Incarcerated Parents and Reasonable Efforts to Preserve and Reunify
the Family
State

Provisions that describe how reasonable effortsa can or should be made or excused for an incarcerated parent

Alabama

Reasonable efforts are not required to be made with respect to a parent if the court determines that the parent has
subjected the child or a sibling to an aggravated circumstance, and the risk of abuse or neglect is too high for the child to
safely remain or return home. An aggravated circumstance may include when a parent is incarcerated and the child is
deprived of a safe, stable, and permanent parent-child relationship. Ala. Code § 12-15-312(c)(1)(f).

California

When counseling or other treatment services are ordered, the parent is not required to participate in those services if the
parent is incarcerated and the corrections facility does not provide access to the treatment services ordered by the court.
Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code Ann. § 361.5(a)(3).
Court-ordered reunification services may be extended for up to a total of 18 months if the court finds there is a
substantial probability that the child will be returned to the parent within the extended time period, or reasonable services
have not been provided. In deciding whether to extend the period of reunification services, courts shall consider the
special circumstances of incarcerated or institutionalized parents, including the barriers to the parent’s access to
services and ability to maintain contact with the child. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 361.5(a)(3).
Court-ordered reunification services may be extended for up to a total of 24 months for parents who are recently
discharged from incarceration and making significant progress in establishing a safe home for the child’s return. This
extension may be granted if the court finds it is in the child’s best interest and there is a substantial probability that the
child will be returned to the parent within the extended time period, or reasonable services have not been provided. Cal.
Welf. & Inst. Code §§ 361.5(a)(4), 366.22(b).
In determining the content of reasonable services, the court shall consider the particular barriers to an incarcerated
parent’s access to court-ordered services and ability to maintain contact with the child, and shall document this
information in the child’s case plan. Services may include: maintaining contact between the parent and child through
collect telephone calls, transportation and visitation services where appropriate, and reasonable services to extended
family members or foster parents if the services are not detrimental to the child. An incarcerated parent may be required
to attend counseling, parenting classes, or vocational training programs as part of the reunification service plan, if actual
access to these services is provided. The social worker shall document in the case plan the particular barriers to an
incarcerated parent’s access to court-ordered services and ability to maintain contact with the child. Cal. Welf. & Inst.
Code § 361.5(e)(1).
The court is not required to order reasonable services if it determines that reasonable services would be detrimental to
the child, considering the age of the child, degree of parent-child bonding, length of the sentence, length and nature of
the treatment, nature of the crime, degree of detriment to the child if services are not offered, and for children 10 years
or older, the child’s attitude toward family reunification services, likelihood of the parent’s discharge within reunification
time limitations, and any other appropriate factors. Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 361.5(e)(1).

Colorado

Reasonable efforts are not required to prevent the child's removal from the home or to reunify the child and the family
when the court finds that the parent has subjected to the child to aggravated circumstances, which can include, among
other factors:

long-term confinement such that the parent is not eligible for parole for at least six years after the date the child was
adjudicated dependent or neglected; or

if the child is under six years old at the time the petition to terminate parental rights is filed in response to reported
child abuse, long-term confinement such that the parent is not eligible for parole for at least 36 months after the
child was adjudicated dependent or neglected.
Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 19-1-115(7)(a), 19-3-604(1)(b)(III).

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Appendix III: Provisions from Selected State
Statutes on Termination of Parental Rights and
“Reasonable Efforts” That Specifically
Address Incarcerated Parents

State

Provisions that describe how reasonable effortsa can or should be made or excused for an incarcerated parent
The court shall approve an appropriate treatment plan, except where termination of parental rights is proposed.
However, the court may find that an appropriate treatment plan cannot be devised due, among other factors, to the
unfitness of the parent, which may be based on:

long-term confinement such that the parent is not eligible for parole for at least 6 years after the date the child was
adjudicated dependent or neglected; or

if the child is under 6 years old at the time the petition to terminate parental rights is filed in response to reported
child abuse, long-term confinement such that the parent is not eligible for parole for at least 36 months after the
child was adjudicated dependent or neglected.
When the court finds that an appropriate treatment plan cannot be devised, the court shall conduct a permanency
hearing unless a motion for termination of parental rights has been filed within 30 days.
Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 19-3-508(1)(e), 19-3-604(1)(b)(III)

New York

Evidence of “diligent efforts” by the state agency is not required when:

the parent has failed to keep the agency apprised of his or her location for 6 months, provided that the court may
consider the particular delays or barriers faced by an incarcerated parent in keeping the agency apprised of his or
her location; or

an incarcerated parent has failed more than once while incarcerated to cooperate with an authorized agency in its
efforts to assist the parent to plan for the future of the child, or to plan and arrange visits with the child.
N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 384-b(7)(e).
The state agency is not required to make arrangements for an incarcerated parent to visit the child outside the
correctional facility unless reasonably feasible and in the best interest of the child. N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 384-b(7)(f)(2).
The state agency is not required to provide services and other assistance to an incarcerated parent so that problems
preventing the discharge of the child from foster care may be resolved or ameliorated. N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 384-b(7)(f)(3).
The state agency must make “diligent efforts” to encourage and strengthen the parental relationship. Diligent efforts
requirements apply equally to incarcerated parents and include:
Making suitable arrangements for a parent to visit the child within the correctional facility, if such visiting is in the best
interests of the child. Such arrangements include transporting the child to the facility, and providing or suggesting social
or rehabilitative services to resolve or correct the problems other than incarceration itself which impair the parent’s ability
to maintain contact with the child.
Providing information on the legal rights and obligations of an incarcerated parent and on social or rehabilitative services
available in the community to aid in the development of a meaningful parent-child relationship, including wherever
possible transitional and family support services located in the community to which the parent shall return.
N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 384-b(7)(f)(5)-(6).
If the parent is incarcerated, the family service plan shall reflect the special circumstances and needs of the child and the
family. The plan generally must be prepared and revised in consultation with the child’s parent or guardian, but if inperson participation is impracticable, they may participate via technology such as videoconference or teleconference.
N.Y. Soc. Serv. Law § 409-e(2)-(3).
Source: GAO analysis of selected state child welfare statutes, as verified by state officials.

Notes: For the remaining six states included in this review (Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Oregon,
Pennsylvania, and Texas), we were unable to identify any specific statutory provisions related to
incarcerated parents and reasonable efforts to preserve and reunify the family. However, that does
not mean that requirements related to this issue have not been developed through other sources,
such as state regulations, case law, or policy.
Because the following provisions are federal requirements for every state that receives federal funds
under Titles IV-E and IV-B of the Social Security Act, this table does not include the provisions in
ASFA which excuse a state agency from conducting reasonable efforts if a court has determined that
the parent has committed specified crimes, see 42 U.S.C. § 671(a)(15)(D).
a

In implementing the federal reasonable efforts requirements, states may use various related terms
such as “reasonable services” or “diligent efforts.”

Page 67

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Appendix IV: Comments from the Department of Health
and Human Services

Appendix IV: Comments from the
Department of Health and Human Services

DI'AaTHlltf Of" HWnl ., HUHAM Sl.llVlCU

Kay Brown, Director
Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues
U.S. Government Accountability Office
441 G Sired NW

Of"na Of ntl Slcarr....'

SEP SO 1011

Wasrunglon, DC 20548

Dear Ms. Brown:
Anached are comments oalhe U.s. Govcrmnmt Aa;::(M,Ullability Office's (GAO) draft report
entitled, "CHILD WELFARE: More Information and Collaboration Could Promote Ties
bclwcen Foster Care Children and Their Incarc::erated Parents" (GAO-l 1-863).
The DepartmCDt appreciates the opportunity to review this report prior 10 publication.

Sincerely,

Assistant SCCl'Clary for Legislation
Attadunml

Page 68

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Appendix IV: Comments from the Department of Health
and Human Services

(a,:NERt\!, CO;\I.\1F:NTSm"TIIE O[P,\RTMEN1' OF HEALTH AND !IUMAN
SERVICp; (1Il1S) QN THE GOV[BN,\I~:NTACCOUNTABiliTY OFFlct~'S ((;1\01
I)KAn REI'ORT t:NTlTL[O, ~MORj,: INI-'ORi\f,\TION ANIl COll,AHORATION
COULP PROMOTE TIES IiETW[EN FOSTER CARt; CHI WREN AND TH[IR
INCARCERATJ:D PAR[NTS~ IGA{}-II-86Jl

The Depatlmcnl appredall:::s the opportunity to TCview and commenl on this dnfi report.
Secrctary Sebelius is a member of Ihe Fcderallnteragcncy Reentry COURl;iI, chaired by
AUomey General Eri, Iioidcr. The Reenlry Coundl is working across Fedcral
departmcnts to clarify polidcs., remove barriers, and promote innovative and lesled
programs 10 increase the polential for indi,'K!uaLs reruming from jail and prison to return
to their families, wtK.TI appropriate. and 10 become prodllCtlVC members oflheir
community. AddfCS!iing Issues thaI affcct children lind families wilh an incareel1ued
parent is part of the COre reenlry mission Oflh" collaboration, As a part of that
collaboratiun, HHS and the Department of Justice arc committed 10 working togethcr 10
cnsure that both thc criminal justi,c and child .....elfare 'ommunities have the infonnation
they need to make the best decisions for incllrccralt.'d and reenlering parenls and for their
chIldren. As GAO nQu:d. one ofthc firslllCtivities of the Reentry Council was to produce
a "Reentry Mythbuster" 10 clarify the dIscretion that Stlt~ ha...e Ln working with
incarcerated parents rather than terminating pan:nllli rights. ThIs is the firsl in an ongoing
series of PQlicy c1"ril'ical1ons lind best pra,tiees infonnalion on family involvCTOent and
family strenglhening lhal will be directed 10 bolh criminal juslicc and child
welfarclhuman services audiences under lhe Icadership of the Cound!. The slalTworking
group supporting the Council will work with lhe Administralion for Children and
I'amili~ (ACF) and Nationallnstitulc of Justice, the Nalional Institulc ofCorrcctions and
the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the dc\'elopmcnt and dissemination oflhcse materials.
GAO

R~llmmendAllons

10 beller IInder~'lmtd the magnitude ojthe populmiol/ ond ilt/vr", Federal or Slate
iuitioti...!s Ilml affeci chilelren infosler care with incarcerOlftd Pllrt!nlS, thft SeCrl'Wry oj
IflfS should identify I<'O)'S to strengthen Ihe romple/lmen ofSlale-reparted dola all those
childrell. For example. in implemenling nt'W reporting "quiremellu jor Ihe Adop/lon
and Fost" Care Anal)'Sis and Reporting S)O'tem (AF'CARSj, Ihe ogencycould take I/Ita
con.sideraticm its 1008 proposed changes 1/1 ~..hich States "muld be requi"" 10 provide
additional informatiun un each/oster child and his or herfamily circumstances.
indtlding a curetaker 's incarcerariQn, 01 several times dl/ring Ihe child's Slay in jro'lf!r
cure and not only when a childfirsf en/us care.
To improWI outCOnles/or these chIldren, Ihe Secretary o/HIIS should ftJke sreps 10 more
systematICally Increase a...'OrftneJs among Slate and local child It'elfa" agencies aboul
(n'OjfQb/~ "sources fix children in child "'~lfqre ....lIh in('Orceroted porenu For
uample, 11115 col/ld.
•

Page 69

Take steps to update and more cl'll/rally organize relcvall/ injarmlllion poswd un
thl' Child Welfare '"/ormatia" Gale...'Oy (GOltwQ)J). which is meanl to sen'e as a
comprehensi\~ in/ormation resource/or rht child "'elfare fidd, .fuch as by
regularly updating Ihe mjonnation listed under tM Gote....ay $ rel('.vnr topic

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Appendix IV: Comments from the Department of Health
and Human Services

CF.NF.RAL CQ,\IMF.NTS m-THF. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH ANI) UUMAN
SF.RVlct:..~ CHUS) ON TilE GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE'S (GAO)
DRAIT REPORT ENTITl.EO, "MORE INFORMATION ANp COL!.ARQBATION
coul.n PRO.'\IOn: TIES BEnn.:EN fOSIF.R CARE CHILDREN AND TlIEIR
INCARCERATED MRENTS-IGA().1 1-11631

areas (e.g.. 'Children '" au,-of Home-CDre Wi,h Incaru.rofed Pareflls J
links 10 more recent maleriallxwro on olhn' HHS-su.ppnrled M"4!Miles.-

...i,h

•

IlknfW' Dr pro1'itk Ddditional i'!formallOn on promising approaches. such as
Ihose listed by the Office of1M Anislant Secrelary for Pla/ming and £~'Oluation:

•

USl' relevanl findings from Ihe Child and ramify Ser....ices Review (CFSR)
as an opportunity 10 remind Slales abm,' (ll'Qi/Qhle resources and posl
informalion on prmnising approaches idenlified in Ihe nlview.t; and

•

FadlilalcaWal'eness amnng all child ....effare agencies ahoul HilS's available
resources Ihrou.gh on email or a leleconferenceJ,.,·ebinar Ihal "'(JI,ld allow Slale
and local agencies 10 share in/ormolion on proclices or stralegil'$.

proce.~s

ACt' Responsf!
We appreciate the lnfonnation and analYSIS provided by GAO, and sh.arfS thf! view that it
is imponant to better understand the eircumslaN:eS and needs ofchildren in foster care
.....ith incarcerated parents. and to increase awareness of available resources to improve
outeomes for these children.
While ACt-' cannot specifically comment on decisions relating to AFCARS proposed
rule. ACF appreciates receiving the GAO's recommendations relating to data concerning
children in foster cllre with incarcerated parcnts. and will take these recommendations
into consideration u the final rule is developed,
Concerning the recommendation that ACF take steps to more systematically increase
awareness among Slate and local child welfare agencies about available resources for
children in ehild welfare with incarcerated parenL~, ACF's Administration on Children,
Youth and Families (ACYF) and the Children's Bureau (CB) aim to accomplish many of
the examples srated in the recommendation through the Child Welfarc Information
Gateway. We will work with !he Gateway on lhe following items:
•

Making informatMm on children of incarcerated parents and related tOpiCS more
eentrlllly located on the Child Welfare Infonnation Gatc.".,y wcbsite. with
multiple links from various pages and updating rcsoorces regularly to include
Srate data and examples. as they arc availablt: and

•

Providing opportunities to make child welfare agencies and States more aware of
the resources available to them about children of incarcerated parents such as
articles in the CB Express. links to new or updaled information on the
'Highlights' and' What's New' sections of the Information Gateway website, and
references in Training & Technical Assistance Network organil.alions·
ncwslcl1crs.

2

Page 70

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Appendix IV: Comments from the Department of Health
and Human Services

CENERAL COMMENTS OF THE IWPARl'i\1t:NT OF HF:ALTtl AND HUMAN
SERVICES (lUIS) ON TilE GOVERNM"NT ACCOUNTABILITy OFFICE'S (GAO)
I>RAI' r REPORT ":NTITLED. "MORI'.: INfORMATION AND COLLABORATION
COULD PROMOTE TIIiS UETWEEN FOSTER CARl'.: CHILI>REN ANO THEIR
INCARCERATED PARENTS" (GAO. I 1.86)
T

In lenns oflhe recommendation to usc relevant findings from the CfSR process as an
opportunity 10 remind States abolll available resources and post information on promising
approaches identilicd in the reviews. we agree and are currently in the process orrevi~ing
the CFSR.

J

Page 71

GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

Appendix V: GAO Contact and Staff
Acknowledgments

Appendix V: GAO Contact and Staff
Acknowledgments
GAO Contact

Kay E. Brown, (202) 512-7215 or brownke@gao.gov

Staff
Acknowledgments

Gale Harris, Assistant Director, and Theresa Lo, Analyst-in-Charge,
managed this assignment. Sara Schibanoff Kelly and Eve Weisberg
managed the portion on residential drug treatment centers presented in
appendix II. Analysts Miriam Hill, Melissa Jaynes, Andrew Nelson, and
Rebecca Rose made important contributions to this report. James
Bennett and Mimi Ngyuen provided graphic assistance, and Susan
Bernstein and David Chrisinger provided writing assistance. Kirsten
Lauber, Jean McSween, Mark Ramage, Beverly Ross, and Shana
Wallace provided data analysis and methodological assistance, and
Sarah Cornetto provided legal assistance.

(131021)

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GAO-11-863 Foster Care Children with Incarcerated Parents

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