When Parents Go to Jail

So, during this “crisis” at our southern border with Mexico, our country has been separating children from their parents because their parents have been arrested and detained for “illegally” crossing the border. This is morally reprehensible. So many other ways-humane ways-exist to treat these migrants.

I’ve heard multiple arguments to support our government’s horrible actions in this case, but one keeps sticking out to me … “What do you think happens in America when a parent goes to jail?” Guess what? I do know exactly what happens because I work in both the criminal and the child protection system. I can be the prosecutor asking the court to hold a person in jail and the prosecutor trying to find a solution for the care of the jailed-person’s child. Let me explain it to you.

Sometimes, when a person is arrested or when a court holds someone with or without bail, the person may have their child with them. In that case, the officer taking the person into custody asks the person if the officer can call someone to take custody of the child. The parent almost always provides the name and contact information for a person (another parent, grandparent, other relative, friend, neighbor, etc.) that the officer can call to pick up and care for the child. Most often, this happens. Someone arrives and takes physical custody of the child.

When a parent is sentenced to a jail sentence, many parents make the arrangements for the care of their child prior to the execution of the sentence. The court system attempts to make allowances for people to set their affairs in order prior to being sentenced. (Obviously, this is not always appropriate.)

Now, sometimes, this happens in an emergency situation and the parents and officers are unable to locate another person to take custody of the child. When this happens, the State steps in and requests that a judge place the child into the Department for Children and Families’s (DCF) custody.

I personally saw this happen in the courthouse a few times over my career. One case always stands out for me. Two parents were arrested for committing a serious crime. We were all unsure if both parents were going to be held on bail by the judge. The police brought the parents and the children to the courthouse. The police decided to allow one parent to stay out of handcuffs and with the children. Well, the judge held both parents on bail. They went to jail, but before leaving, we asked if they could call someone to care for the children. They had no one. So, I called DCF to have a social worker come down to get the kids while the officer wrote the affidavit to request DCF custody. The court officer found crayons and paper for the kids while we waited for the judge to make a decision.

Once children are placed in DCF custody, the children go to a foster home. DCF works with the parents to hopefully find family or a friend who would be suitable to care for children. It’s amazing how many people are truly available when this happens. We’ve had grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, teachers, church members, coaches, former step-parents, and parents of the children’s friends all step up to care for a child while the child’s parent is in jail. If none of those people are available, licensed foster parents will care for the child.

In no case does a child go to a “tent city” or to a “tender-age home” or to a warehouse with toys and books or have to stay in a cage … oh, I mean rooms with chainlink walls.

Our children are placed in a family environment and while the people caring for the children may not be the child’s family, the children have their basic needs met. And, I don’t mean just food and water. When the children cry, the substitute family holds them and tries to soothe them. When the children fall and scrape their knee, the substitute family comforts them, cleans up their scrape, puts on medicine and draws a smiley face on the band-aid. When the children wake from nightmares, the substitute family consoles them and reminds them that they are in a safe place. The children are enrolled in school or daycare. (Every effort is made to ensure that the children’s school or daycare doesn’t change because of the custody change.) The foster parents do everything they can to ensure that the child’s life is as normal as possible.

But, here’s the most important part … the children know where their parents are. They even get to have contact with their parent (assuming, of course, that their parent isn’t the perpetrator of a crime against the child). The parents have case managers in jail who can set up phone calls between the parent and children. We have a program in our correctional facilities in Vermont where children can visit their parents in a child-friendly environment inside the jail twice a month.

On the flip-side, parents know where their children are placed (for the most part … sometimes safety reasons require that the address be kept confidential). And, the parents are transported to court hearings where we talk about the plan for the children. The parents each have their own attorneys. The parents can make suggestions and can ask the court for a different plan and for visitation. The children have their own attorneys and guardians ad litem who look out for the children’s wellbeing and best interests. The attorney can make requests on behalf of the children.

Is our system perfect? No. But, multiple checks are in place to ensure that the children are as safe as possible, physically and emotionally. The families who have risked everything to come to the United States deserve the same treatment.

“You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” Malcom Forbes.

The same measure applies to the character of a Nation.

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