While many Americans watched in horror as family separation policies tore families apart at the border, many of us didn’t know how frequently our laws tear apart families of color here in Connecticut.
When judges sentence parents to incarceration, they can unknowingly sentence children to family separation through termination of parental rights (“TPR”). After TPR, a parent has no right to care for, visit, or communicate with their child. TPR is the death penalty of family law: If the length of a parent’s sentence triggers TPR, children suffer permanent, legal separation from their families.
Connecticut’s legislature can end TPR’s disproportionate impact on low-income families and communities of color by passing legal reforms. It’s time for them to take action.
Through the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School, we published a report about how TPR harms Connecticut’s children in partnership with Connecticut Voices for Children, and in consultation with CT Children with Incarcerated Parents and impacted families.
As the report describes, TPR skyrocketed after Congress passed the 1997 federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (“ASFA”). AFSA provides funding for states that file for TPR “when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months.” Parents who are incarcerated for more than 15 months are especially likely to reach this 15/22-months limit. The average length of incarceration nationally is 24 months. Because of this 15/22-months rule, thousands of children have lost their families in the name of their own “safety.” By 2005, ASFA had caused a 250% increase in TPR among incarcerated parents. From 2006–2019, more than 30,000 U.S. families faced TPR, approximately 5,000 on the basis of incarceration.
Though ASFA purports to protect children, the U.S. Children’s Bureau found that it sacrifices permanent relationships ––something youth need to thrive–– for the uncertain possibility of adoption. Family separation can produce toxic stress, permanently harming kids’ physical and mental health. TPR is devastating for incarcerated parents and the public, too, since parents who maintain strong family ties are less likely to return to prison.
Racial disparities in incarceration exacerbate racial disparities in TPR. In Connecticut and nationally, children of color are more likely to suffer TPR than white children. Black children are nearly four times as likely to experience TPR as white children, and Latinx children are over 2.5 times as likely.
TPR falls hardest on low-income children of color. Parents can try to demonstrate their desire to reunify to judges, but the standards can be impossible for incarcerated parents to meet. Many families cannot afford the cost of phone calls from Connecticut prisons, which is the nation’s highest.
COVID-19 made things worse. Prisons decreased visitation, access to phone calls, and programming. Many incarcerated parents fell ill and could not call or see their kids, while the timeline continued to tick.
Ms. T is a Connecticut mother who suffered permanent family separation. When she was incarcerated in 2018, her youngest child entered foster care. Ms. T called her, arranged visits, sent recordings of herself reading, and enrolled in parenting classes, but the state filed for TPR due to the 15/22-months rule. Despite Ms. T’s advocacy, when COVID-19 hit, the prison shut down communication. Although she was only few months from release, she couldn’t keep in touch with her daughter. A judge ordered TPR. In July, Ms. T was released. Neither she nor her older children are allowed to contact Ms. T’s youngest child. Because of the timeline, Ms. T has found herself in a position that too many mothers of color face: She is fighting the state to have a relationship with her own child.
Connecticut lawmakers should act now to protect the rights of children with incarcerated parents.
First, lawmakers should support two bills before them this session. The legislature should vote yes on Senate Bill 972 to make prison phone calls free for families. Children should be able to call their incarcerated parents, and parents should be able to maintain connection to keep their parental rights. Families should not have to choose between keeping the lights on and maintaining family ties. The legislature should also vote yes on Senate Bill 1084 to collect data about TPR. Right now, Connecticut’s processes lack transparency that we need to understand the full impact of TPR, especially on Connecticut’s communities of color.
Most importantly, Connecticut Department of Children and Families should pause the TPR timeline when incarceration is involved. This would stop punishing kids because of their parents’ sentence, without costing the state any money. Other states, including New York, have taken similar measures.
In this time of racial reckoning at home and on the border, Connecticut must end its practice of separating families when the length of a parent’s prison sentence is a factor. Children deserve support, not the family death penalty. They cannot afford to wait any longer.
Allison Durkin, Destiny Lopez and Eleanor Roberts represent the Criminal Justice Advocacy Clinic at Yale Law School/New Haven.