Does Parental Incarceration Increase a Child’s Risk
for Foster Care Placement?
by Marilyn C. Moses
Common wisdom holds that children are at greater risk of
being placed in the foster care system when a parent is
incarcerated. But interim
findings from an ongoing NIJ-funded study reveal that there
may be no such correlation for mothers; in fact, many of
the mothers had lost custody of their children before they
were incarcerated—in some cases, as many as 3 years
The study, which was jointly funded by grants from NIJ,
the Chicago Community Trust, the Open Society Institute,
and the Russell Sage Foundation, was awarded to researchers
at the University of California and the University of Chicago.
Researchers are focusing on mothers who were incarcerated
in Illinois State prisons and the Cook County (Chicago)
jail from 1990 to 2000. They are matching the mothers’
incarceration data with data about their childrens’
foster care placement.
The study is examining what—if any—connection
exists between a parent’s incarceration and a child’s
risk of being placed in foster care.
Which Came First?
Researchers found that slightly more than one-fourth (27
percent) of the mothers who had been incarcerated had a
child who had been placed in foster care at some point during
the child’s life. And almost the same percentage of
children whose mothers were incarcerated reported having
been placed in foster care at some point.
But surprisingly, researchers found, the mother’s
incarceration was not the reason the child was placed in
In fact, in almost three-quarters of the cases, children
were placed in foster care prior to the mother’s first
period of incarceration. And in more than 40 percent of
those cases, the children entered foster care as many as
3 years before their mothers went to jail.
This finding contradicts a widely held assumption that
children are placed in foster care as a direct result of
their parents’ incarceration. The early findings indicate
that a child’s foster care status is rarely a direct
result of a mother’s arrest and imprisonment.
This finding is consistent with the results of an earlier,
more limited study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice.
There, researchers compared the foster care records of children
who first entered the child welfare system in New York State
in fiscal year 1997 with their mother’s criminal history
records. Most mothers in the Vera study were found to have
lost custody before they were arrested or went to jail.
A mother’s incarceration overlapped with the child’s
stay in foster care in only 11 percent of the cases.
For the children who were in foster care for 30 consecutive
days while their mother was incarcerated, 9 in 10 had been
placed in foster care prior to their mother’s incarceration.
The large majority of children—85 percent—were
placed in foster care before the mother was arrested on
charges that led to her incarceration.
A Big Step in the Right Direction
The interim finding from the Chicago data represents a
significant development in the study of the relationship
between foster care and parental incarceration. Until now,
no study of this magnitude has focused exclusively on the
status of the children of incarcerated parents. Instead,
researchers have focused primarily on the incarcerated parent;
data on children and their custody status was incidental
to their inquiries.
In addition, several factors have impeded research on the
children: small sample sizes, a reluctance on the part of
families and caregivers to provide information that might
disrupt formal or informal custody arrangements, and insufficient
funding and resources to locate and track children over
Researchers from the Universities of California and Chicago
will continue to examine other questions posed by the relationships
between child welfare and parental incarceration, such as:
- Do families in which the mother is incarcerated
before the child is placed in foster care differ from
families in which the child is removed before the parent
- What is the relationship between the
mother’s incarceration and the likelihood of a child
returning home from foster care or the number of foster
- What effect does the mother’s
incarceration have on termination of parental rights?
- What is the relationship between the
offense that resulted in the mother’s incarceration
and the types of maltreatment that prompted child welfare
services to intervene?
- What are the similarities and differences
between the mother’s type of incarceration (jail
vs. prison) and the above child welfare issues?
Researchers hope that answers to these queries will illuminate
the crossroads of the foster care and criminal justice systems
and yield information that will have important implications
for practitioners and policymakers. Data on this nexus will
help policymakers estimate Federal and State costs of parental
incarceration and the involvement of dependent children
in the foster care system. These data will also inform crime
prevention and family reunification strategies and strengthen
collaborative efforts between the criminal justice and child
 A study of 659 foster care alumni
who were in the child welfare system between 1988 and
1998 found that parental incarceration is a significant
pre-placement risk factor for foster care. Of the foster
care alumni in the study, 35 percent had a mother and
36.7 percent had a father
with a criminal past. Pecora, P.J., R.C. Kessler, J. Williams,
K. O’Brien, A.C. Downs, D. English, J. White, E.
Hiripi, C.R. White, T. Wiggins, and K.E. Holmes, Improving
Family Foster Care: Findings From the Northwest Foster
Care Alumni Study, Seattle, WA: Casey Family Programs,
March 14, 2005: 2, available at www.casey.org/Resources/Publications/NorthwestAlumniStudy.htm.
 Researchers looked at 52,883 incarcerated
or formerly incarcerated mothers and 124,626 of their
children to determine that 7,281 incarcerated or formerly
incarcerated mothers had 21,533 children who at some point
in time were in foster care.