Q: What is required of an incarcerated parent when their children have been removed because of abuse, abandonment or neglect?
A: If a child is removed from one parent due to allegations of abuse, neglect or abandonment and the other parent is incarcerated (either in jail or prison, locally or in another state), the Department of Children and Families will often file a dependency petition on the incarcerated parent, alleging, at a minimum, that the incarcerated parent is not available to provide for the child. If there are other issues involved (e.g., substance abuse, domestic violence), the department will allege those issues as well. Depending on what the dependency petition alleges and the court finds upon adjudication, the incarcerated parent will be ordered to comply with a case plan with particular tasks.
Two of the most important of these tasks should be fairly easy for the incarcerated parent to achieve. First, the parent has to stay in contact with their child by phone and/or mail and they can send cards or drawings to the child. Second, the parents must stay in contact with their case manager by phone and/or mail not only to let the case manager know what they are doing, but also to stay abreast of any medical, psychological, educational or other issues their child might have.
If the case plan contains other tasks, the incarcerated parent is still responsible for completing those tasks if those services are available in the facility and the parent can sign up for and attend. The jails, prisons and work camps around the state offer many of the programs required of the parents in their case plan. In Manatee County, for example, an incarcerated parent can get their GED, attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, learn life skills, and even learn vocational skills in things such as auto mechanics and welding so they are employable upon release.
If the term of incarceration is short and the parent is active on their case plan tasks, they can remain in compliance with their case plan and may earn the right to be reunified with their children after their release.
Q: What happens when parents are incarcerated for long periods of time?
A: Under certain circumstances, a parent's incarceration may be the cause for a termination of his/her parental rights (TPR). Incarceration has always been a statutory ground for TPR, but there are recent amendments to the statute (effective July 1, 2012), that focus on harm and best interest. Much will depend on the age of
the child, the relationship between the child and the incarcerated parent and the length of incarceration. Florida Statute, Chapter 39 states that a parent's rights may be terminated:
"When the parent of a child is incarcerated and either:
1. The period of time for which the parent is expected to be incarcerated will constitute a significant portion of the child's minority. When determining whether the period of time is significant, the court shall consider the child's age and the child's need for a permanent and stable home. The period of time begins on the date that the parent enters into incarceration;
2. The incarcerated parent has been determined by the court to be a violent career criminal.
3. The court determines by clear and convincing evidence that continuing the parental relationship with the incarcerated parent would be harmful to the child, and for this reason, that termination of the parental rights of the incarcerated parent is in the best interest of the child. When determining harm, the court shall consider the following factors:
The age of the child.
The relationship between the child and the parent.
The nature of the parent's current and past provision for the child's developmental, cognitive, psychological and physical needs.
The parent's history of criminal behavior, which may include the frequency of incarceration and the unavailability of the parent to the child due to incarceration.
Any other factor the court deems relevant."
Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Herald. Readers who have questions for "ASK the GAL" about child abuse, foster care, child protection, adoption, or who might be interested in learning more how to become a GAL volunteer can e-mail Pam at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to her at Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.