Do incarcerated moms deserve another chance?

Illinois Supreme Court to decide


Heather Gillers


The second time Pamela Thomas went to prison, she lost more than her liberty. She lost her daughters. Thomas wasn’t a violent criminal but she was addicted to cocaine.

On her way to prison for possession of cocaine, three unidentified officials handed her a form terminating her parental rights. She signed it without asking questions.

Thomas, now director of Rose House, a halfway facility in North Chicago for women released from prison, says the officials told her she would have lost her girls even if she hadn’t signed the form.

According to Illinois law, she would have.

Currently, the Illinois Supreme Court is considering a case challenging that law and has reopened the debate between children’s advocates about whether the current laws actually serve the best interests of the child. And whether they take into account the patterns of recovery for addictions.

The law says “repeated incarceration” is sufficient reason to take away a parent’s rights. The statute affects mostly women, who are more likely to fight for parental rights, says Joanne Archibald of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM).

There are more than 2,400 mothers in prison in Illinois today, according to a University of Chicago study. If they’ve been there before, they are unfit parents, according to the state.

About 35,000 Illinois children have mothers who have spent time in state prison, according to CLAIM statistics. That number is predicted to increase to 60,000 in the next generation.

For those whose incarceration has a root cause of alcoholism and substance addiction, experts say that a normal recovery will take time and include backsliding. 

The case before the Illinois Supreme Court is a situation similar to Thomas’, and could set a precedent for other women who have been incarcerated more than once. The case involves a Cook County woman, known only as Detra W., who is fighting to retain parental rights to her daughter, Gwynne P., now 5.

A lower court deemed Detra a fit parent on all grounds but one: She has been incarcerated repeatedly. If the Supreme Court overlooks that fact and protects Detra’s parental rights, the verdict will affect more families than just her own.

The court heard arguments in the case in November and has taken it under advisement. The Supreme Court does not release a schedule for decisions, but juvenile cases are often expedited, says Donna Ryder, an attorney in the case.

Compelling story

More than 300 of the women served by CLAIM are fighting to keep from losing parental rights on the grounds of repeated incarcerations. So are many women served by the Cook County Public Defender’s office, says Crystal Gray Woodfork, an attorney supervisor there. If any story can persuade Illinois courts to bend the repeated incarceration rule, activists say, it is Detra’s.

Detra began her second prison term in 1999, three days before Gwynne was born addicted to heroin and cocaine. Like Thomas, Detra served time for buying and selling drugs and shoplifting to support her habit.

Unlike Thomas, Detra is fighting hard to keep her daughter.

She started her battle in prison. In the two years after Gwynne’s birth, Detra successfully completed drug treatment and a parenting class. She also earned a high school equivalency degree.

She asked the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (which does not comment on pending cases) to bring Gwynne to visit.

She sent her child cards and presents that the court later examined. After her release from prison in March 2002, Detra found a job at a drug treatment program. She was ready to create a family for her daughter.

Except that Gwynne already had a family. Eight months after her birth, DCFS placed Gwynne with a loving foster family, says Charles Golbert, chief of appeals for the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office.

Child’s best interests

Gwynne’s foster mother has a master’s degree in early childhood special education. She completed extra training that qualifies her to give Gwynne the speech therapy and physical therapy she needs because she was born addicted to drugs, court records say.

If Detra wins the case, she won’t necessarily separate Gwynne from her foster family or win custody of her child—that would take a separate hearing where Detra would have to prove that regaining custody of the child is in Gwynne’s best interest.

But beyond the two extremes, there is currently no middle ground in the law. The foster family can only adopt Gwynne if Detra’s parental rights are terminated. And if that happens, Detra would no longer have a legal right to see her child.

Gwynne’s foster family would like to adopt the little girl and Golbert believes that would be in the child’s best interest.

“Children need to know who their parents are,” he says. “Young children need security and confidence that they have a place they’re going to stay.”

Gwynne’s foster home is the only one she has ever known.

“She calls her foster mom ‘Mama.’ She calls her foster dad ‘Dad,’ ” Golbert says. “Those facts support termination of parental rights.”

But Richard Cozzola, who supervises the Children’s Law Project at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, disagrees.

“In some cases, what is in the child’s best interest would be to have a relationship with the parent of origin,” he says, “even if [that child is] adopted or living permanently in guardianships.”

Cozzola says terminating parental rights can hurt children. Even children in loving adopted families often want to know: “Who is this person that I came from?” he says.

Cozzola says mental health professionals have told him that “every time that kid hits a developmental milestone, it’ll come back. At 8, at 10, at 12, they’ll want to know, ‘What was my biological mom like at this time?’ ”

Pamela Thomas’ daughters did. Thomas is now helping to raise her younger daughter, whom her mother adopted while she was in prison.

“I didn’t get my children back through the court but they came back to me anyway,” she says.

Ruling’s impact

If the Illinois Supreme Court case rules in Detra’s favor, it will set a precedent for lower courts to weigh a mother’s rehabilitation against her history of incarceration when deciding parental rights.

“It [would] give a better picture to cases that come after,” says Donna Ryder, Detra’s lawyer. “It can let the courts know that they can’t find the parent unfit just because they were incarcerated.”

The public guardian’s office believes that would be disastrous.

“I’d be really worried that other children who have been bonding with foster parents since infancy would be at risk of being stripped away from the only people they know as their parents,” says Golbert.

But Detra’s lawyer says a verdict in her favor would allow the court to give repeatedly incarcerated mothers a second chance to form relationships with their children.

However the verdict affects families, it will touch many of them. 

Heather Gillers is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She wrote this story for the Medill News Service.


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