Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock () or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

March 2013Vol. 14, No. 2Parental Incarceration and Foster Care Reunification

Incarcerated parents face myriad obstacles in meeting the requirements of their child welfare case plans within designated timeframes, including access to services and parent-child visits. Their inability to comply with court-ordered obligations may affect reunification. A recent article in Social Work in Public Health highlights a study that examined reunification outcomes among parents who were incarcerated during the examination period and parents who were not incarcerated at the time.

The study is a secondary analysis of data gathered as part of a previous study on reunification services, which was funded by the California Social Work Education Center. Each case was followed from when the child entered out-of-home care in 2004 until one of three events occurred: (1) the end of data collection in 2007 or 2008, (2) the child and parent were reunited, and/or (3) another form of permanency was achieved. Data were gathered from reports from social workers updating the courts on parents' progress and service participation.

Visits between children in foster care and their biological parents have shown to improve reunification outcomes. However, visits among incarcerated parents and their children are often complicated due to distance or prison visitation policies. Likewise, lack of access to other reunification services, such as drug treatment programs, often prohibits parental compliance with case plan requirements.

Results of the secondary analysis study showed that: 

  • Roughly 40 percent of incarcerated mothers and fathers fully met visitation orders, compared to nearly 70 percent of nonincarcerated mothers and 60 percent of nonincarcerated fathers.
  • Incarcerated mothers were half as likely as nonincarcerated mothers to reunite with their children.
  • Incarcerated fathers were only one-third as likely as nonincarcerated fathers to reunite with their children.
  • Incarcerated mothers took roughly 5 months longer to reunite with their children than nonincarcerated mothers.
  • Incarcerated fathers took about 3 months longer than nonincarcerated fathers to reunite.

The authors suggest that incarceration is a significant deterrent to reunification, specifically because imprisonment often hinders parents from participating in services or visits. Suggestions for policy and practice are also included in the article.

"Reunifying From Behind Bars: A Quantitative Study of the Relationship Between Parental Incarceration, Service Use, and Foster Care Reunification," by Amy D'Andrade and Melanie Valdez, Social Work in Public Health, 27, is available for purchase: