The state of Indiana is on the verge of enacting a law that will make sure parents in prison don’t have their parental rights terminated because of their imprisonment alone, an issue The Marshall Project first reported on in December.
At least 32,000 mothers and fathers nationally—none of them accused of child abuse—have permanently lost their children while locked up, often for minor crimes, according to a Marshall Project analysis that was cited in committee hearings for the Indiana legislation.
Two formerly incarcerated women, as part of a fellowship to work at the state assembly, helped write the bill and have been meeting with lawmakers for weeks to lobby for its passage. It was passed by both houses of the legislature and is expected to be signed by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb in the coming days.
“I’m elated,” said Christina Kovats, one of the women, who also helps run an innovative prisoner-reentry program that The Marshall Project covered in 2017. “This is about families who are just trying to stay together from prison—families without a voice. Hopefully we were a voice for them.”
The bill will allow Indiana’s judges to delay or dismiss terminations of incarcerated parents’ rights if the parents have shown they have maintained a relationship with their children and continue to play a meaningful role in the kids’ lives.
The Marshall Project report in December found that a 1997 federal law championed by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, known as the Adoption and Safe Families Act, created a 15-month time limit for most children to be adopted out of foster care.
As a result, parents incarcerated for more than 15 months—as most prisoners are—can face the irrevocable loss of their kids, especially since attending family court is next to impossible from confinement.
“This is the family separation crisis that no one knows about,” said Kathleen Creamer, a family attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
In recent years, a handful of states including New York, Washington and Illinois have passed legislation helping imprisoned parents keep their children, including by extending the 15-month timeline.
Kovats and her colleague, Kristina Byers, began their lobbying work from behind bars, where they were on a team that testified before the state assembly by videoconference about issues affecting women in lockup. Now out, they have been a constant presence in lawmakers’ offices, advocating for reforms on issues ranging from driver’s license revocations to drug-free zones.
“We’re also trying to give people in power an actual picture of what incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people look like, to shift the stigma,” Kovats said. “We’re not hiding shanks... We just have policy proposals.”
Kovats and Byers got the idea for the incarcerated parents bill from a friend at the Indiana Women’s Prison who’d had her own parental rights terminated. They studied Washington state’s legislation as a model, met with child-services officials, wrote a draft version and got it sponsored by a representative who has endorsed their work in the past, Karlee Macer, a Democrat.
As the bill proceeded through both chambers of the assembly, conservative lawmakers introduced an amendment weakening it to take away protection from parents convicted of some crimes, including murder, rape or molestation of a child.
The bill doesn’t ensure that parents in prison get regular visitation with their children and access to all of their family court hearings.
But it still offers a dramatic change from a status quo in which, according to The Marshall Project’s analysis, mothers and fathers who had a child placed in foster care because they are incarcerated—but who had not been accused of child abuse, neglect, endangerment or even drug or alcohol use—were more likely to have their parental rights terminated than those who physically or sexually assault their kids.
“This is just the beginning,” said Byers. “We’ve created a presence in a world I would’ve never imagined we’d be welcome in.”