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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 1
January 2002

Reunifying Families After Parental Incarceration

In an ideal world, says foster care supervisor Jamie Hayden, incarcerated parents would have unlimited visits with their children and be offered family therapy and classes in peer parenting and anger management. But in the real world, Hayden says, "We just don't have the resources."

Hayden, who works for the Salt Lake City Department of Human Services, has handled hundreds of cases where one or both parents are incarcerated and the children were in state custody. Most vital, she emphasizes, is developing a post-release plan to help parents do all they need to do to reunite with their families.

But it's a balancing act. "They come out of prison with no resources," she says. "Very few of them have a support system, let alone a car." Yet so many demands are put on newly released inmates by probation and child welfare that "they can't do it, especially if they're drug- and alcohol-involved. We set them up to fail."

A more sensible approach, she says, involves making fewer demands on the ex-prisoner initially, then later dropping some requirements and adding others. She practices what she preaches, insisting that her newly released clients concentrate first on drug and alcohol rehabilitation and compliance with probation.

In returning kids to parents, timing is critical, she says. Returning a child too soon can overwhelm a parent struggling with so much else. Dragging it out can demoralize an ex-offender and risk her doing something foolish.

Among the advice she offers child welfare professionals working with these families:

  • Don't let personal biases toward convicts and minorities keep you from doing what's best for the child, "which is to be with the family."
  • Establish a rapport with your client's case manager in prison so she takes a personal interest in him.
  • Work with a client's probation officer to develop a combined probation and treatment plan.
  • If a family drug court is available, use it.

Slavin, P. (2000). Children with parents behind bars. Children's Voice, 9(5), 4-37. Reprinted by special permission of the Child Welfare League of America, Washington, DC (