There are approximately 15,000 children in New Hampshire with a parent who is, or has been, incarcerated. And a new report by the Office of the Child Advocate warns that state corrections and child welfare agencies have to do better for those kids to prevent problems down the road.
Moira O’Neill, director of the OCA, said communication is key to preventing the long-term negative effects on a child’s mental and physical health that studies have shown can come from exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including parental incarceration. “We need to lessen the negative impact on a child’s well-being and development in difficult circumstances,” she said.
Preventing parental incarceration is the “primary protectant” for children, the OCA stressed. But once a parent is in prison, O’Neill said, “Timely and consistent communication across agencies, with parents, and within families, is critical to maintain parent/child relationships when safe and appropriate, or ease children on to other permanent relationships when necessary.”
“Parents Incarcerated in the New Hampshire State Prison System” is the first issue briefing to come out of the OCA. It states that the Division for Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) and the Department of Corrections (DOC) “have not consistently supported families and protected children” in such areas as: ensuring consistent and timely communication; elevating a child’s interests as primary; supporting inmates for ongoing parenting; and easing the loss of the parenting role in cases where parental rights are being terminated.
The report also identified potential solutions, such as making sure all DCYF staff and DOC case managers have accurate contact information for their agency counterparts. It notes that DOC is investigating whether to offer inmates free phone calls and emails to DCYF or the OCA.
And the DOC is also exploring allowing tablet-based video visitations throughout the prison system. There would be a charge for parents to use the program, but officials could seek grant funding, the report says.
The briefing was based on visits by OCA staff to both the men’s and women’s prisons to meet with inmates, meetings with DCYF and DOC officials, and review of individual DCYF cases. In reviewing those cases, the OCA identified problems including:
• Court delays in permanency/adoption cases due to failure to notify parents of court dates
• Missed parent/child visits due to a transportation vendor refusing to take children to the prison
• Lack of planning for family reunification
• “Insensitive and untimely” notification of terminated parental rights
• “Inconsistent” communication by DCYF case workers
There’s a lot at stake, the OCA briefing concluded. Parental incarceration — and other stressors that come with it, such as poverty, social difficulties and housing instability — can negatively affect a child’s mental and physical health issues, school performance and development.
For incarcerated parents who plan to return to their children, the report stated, “When in the child’s best interest, safe, regular visitation between parents and children is critical to maintaining consistent relationships and ensuring trust and security for the child.”
The child’s best interests have to come first, the OCA said.
“Parents’ rights to a relationship with a child should not supersede a child’s right to be protected from harm, including if visits to a prison are intolerable,” the report said.
And not all parents will be reunited with their children when they get out of prison.