Mothers Should Not Be Jailed and Separated From Their Kids Before Trial

Tanisha (a pseudonym) is a 25-year-old mother of four who was arrested in Oklahoma in 2017 following a domestic dispute with her boyfriend. Three of her children, a toddler and twin infants, were present. Once jailed, Tanisha’s bail was set at $61,000. She couldn’t afford to pay it, so she stayed behind bars, separated from her children.  

This is wealth-based family separation perpetuated by the criminal justice system.

A new joint report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, “You Miss So Much When You’re Gone,” shines a light on this injustice and shows how even short stays in jail can have a lasting impact on families. The report focuses on Tanisha and other moms who have been jailed in Oklahoma, a state that incarcerates more women per capita than any other.

After a month in jail, Tanisha was desperate to get back to her kids, so she decided to accept a five-year suspended sentence. But shortly after she was released, her children were taken into foster care. Tanisha has been struggling ever since to regain child custody.

The state has placed a host of obstacles between Tanisha and her children, such as paying for programs and services the state requires but she doesn’t have the money for. She can’t afford required domestic violence classes. She can’t afford a parenting class. She can’t afford a psychological evaluation. She lost a job because she was trying to attend child welfare meetings and receive required services. As a consequence, she fears that her children will be adopted and that she will lose them forever.

Tanisha is far from alone.

Our research found that having children at home makes the pressure to plead guilty especially acute. Some moms we spoke with accepted a guilty plea offer just to get out of jail so that they could take care of their children. They also fear that their children will end up in foster care, which might result in their loss of parental rights.

According to federal and local reunification timelines, parental rights can be terminated if a child remains in foster care for longer than 15 months. This timeframe is even shorter when children are under 4 years old. While moms are in jail, they face difficulties getting in touch with child welfare caseworkers, receiving notice of custody-related proceedings, and getting transported to those hearings.

They also may end up not seeing or speaking with their children at all.

Most jails in Oklahoma do not allow in-person visitation, and some have gone so far as to bar children from visiting. The isolation and separation do not end there. If moms don’t have money on their jail account, they often can’t place video or phone calls to keep in contact with their children. And if their children are in foster care, setting up visits is even more difficult.

Once released from jail, moms are met with extensive fines, fees, and costs that can hinder getting back on their feet and regaining or maintaining custody of their children. They may leave with a bill for each day they stayed in jail or a bill for seeing a doctor. They may end up paying $40 per month to be supervised on probation. They may also have to pay for parenting classes or psychological evaluations as part of a parent-child reunification plan.

Approximately 1.5 million women are admitted into local jails each year. Nearly 80 percent are mothers with minor children. Most are accused of minor crimes. Many remain in jail for weeks, months, a year, or more, waiting for the disposition of their cases — often because they cannot afford to pay money bail. Like Tanisha, pretrial detention can snowball into never-ending family separation as people attempt to navigate court systems and overcome what are truly insurmountable financial burdens assessed by courts, jails, and child welfare services.

We urge Oklahoma and other states to work intentionally to address the over-incarceration of women and the separation of mothers from their children. Oklahoma, and all states, should be required to consider a person’s primary caretaker status in bail and sentencing proceedings. They should be required to expand alternatives to arrest and incarceration. They should programmatically facilitate the involvement of incarcerated parents in their children’s lives and proceedings related to child custody and substantially curb the imposition of fees and costs, which too often place barriers at reentry and to parent-child reunification.

No one should lose contact with their children or risk losing their parenting rights because they can’t afford bail, especially in a country where the presumption of innocence is a bedrock foundation of our criminal justice system.


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Ryan

I have experianced this myself. I believe our criminal justice system needs to offer a R.O.R. (released on recognizance) policy for everyone that has not previously violated a R.O.R. release.
Some state use this system, what it means is if you are arrestested you go to jail ubtil you go before magistrate usually within 24 hours and after the magistrate finds probable cause for your arrest you are processed and then released with a court date. Its just that simple. But if you fail to apear on the appointed day you will be arrested and charged with further crimes and will no longer have the right to a future R.O.R.. Obviously this is only for minor offenses. but if we are talking about violent offenses this is very shaky because if a father was arrested for domestic violence as this women was, would anyone call for him to be reunited with his children in this way?? I doubt it. And there in lies the problem. A man is pushed to far and loses control and pushes his wife he is a monster and should be burned at the stake. If a woman loses control over her temper and attacks her husband with a frying pan causing injury then she is arrested and seperated from her family, then she is seen as a victim of male oppression and we should let her out and not challenge her ability to provide or care for her children in any way ( fines and costs for re 8ntegrating parents and children make parents prove they can make money to provide for their kids and all the hoops they have to jump through if executed successfully shows the parents willingness to put the childs care above their own comfort and schedule.
Truth is its hard and families involved in criminal domestic offenses should be given alot of counciling and advice and be esucated about waht they are potentially facing. And people should think about thoer spouse and kids before they hastily call the police on their spouse. Of course if someone is terrorizing and beating you CALL THE POLICE.

God Bless!
-Ryan

Anonymous

Here we go again. All men are innocent little victims of evil abusive women. Sing a different tune, will ya? It is precisely this belief that animates the courts. Men who savagely beat their wives are perceived as innocent and are given a slap on the wrist, whereas women who hit their husbands in self-defense are perceived as monsters and slapped with extraordinary bail fines and sentences. Men have never and will never be oppressed. They have always been favored in the courts.

Tailor

I haven't gone to jail but I'm still fighting for mine back! After doing all services asked, the court is set to terminate my rights because they don't feel I've benefitted! I could use the ALCU help! I've messaged you for help. Thanks!

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