Nearly half of US states do not collect data on the number of incarcerated women with children making it difficult for some nonprofits to provide services to those youth, according to a new report released Wednesday.
The study, conducted between July and October of this year by the nonprofit Girls Embracing Mothers, found that only 11 states compile data on incarcerated mothers while 24 states do not collect that information. Nine states reported that they do compile the data directly from incarcerated women but called it “unreliable,” not helpful” “not routinely updated,” and “not factual,” according to the report. Six states did not respond to the study.
Girls Embracing Mothers reached out to the Department of Corrections in all 50 states to gather this information.
The lack of reporting means an unknown number of children could be facing neglect and a host of socioeconomic challenges despite there being organizations that want to help, said Brittany Barnett, founder and president of Girls Embracing Mothers, a group focused on empowering young girls with mothers in prison.
The issue has a disproportionate impact on Black families given Black people are incarcerated at higher rates than other races, according to The Sentencing Project. The Sentencing Project attributes this disparity to biased practices and procedures in the criminal legal system and a disproportionate number of Black people living in poverty.
While there are significantly more men behind bars than women, the Prison Policy Initiative found that the number of incarcerated women has grown at twice the rate of men. Between 1980 and 2020 the number of incarcerated women increased from 26,326 to 152,854, or 475%, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
More than half (58%) of all women in prisons are mothers. Many are being held because they can’t afford bail and for non-violent offenses. Most incarcerated women are also the primary caretakers of their children.
Barnett said children of incarcerated parents are at increased risk of behavioral issues, learning disabilities, depression and are more likely to enter the criminal justice system themselves.
Barnett said the states that don’t believe imprisoned mothers would provide accurate information about children “dehumanizes women who are going through unimaginable circumstances.”
“It’s very troubling,” Barnett said. “We have no idea the extent of the devastation caused by maternal incarceration. I feel we are only touching the surface of the number of children who have been impacted.”
But some advocates for incarcerated women say the lack of data on mothers and children is not surprising.
Lisa Monet Wayne, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said most women who end up in the criminal justice system are already receiving government assistance such as social services, welfare or Medicare. State governments are therefore already aware of the family’s needs. Information about a woman’s children is also contained in the court records when she is sentenced, Wayne said.
“We are talking about mostly women who have been tracked by the government for most of their adult lives and their children,” Wayne said.
Wayne said there are also privacy issues that come into play where incarcerated mothers may not want nonprofits gaining access to their children. She suggests that nonprofits offer their services when a woman is first arrested and charged. The groups, she said, could partner with public defender offices. Generally, that is when most mothers are trying to make provisions for their family, Wayne said.
“At beginning of the case all she normally cares about is her children,” Wayne said. “If you can put them at ease at the front end… it allows those women to make intelligent choices about how they want to resolve their case.”
Barnett said her organization has programs that look to enhance the relationship between the incarcerated parent and their children. Their programs also provide support for children and mothers that help reduce the trauma and mental anguish of the separation.
According to the study, most children of incarcerated parents live with the other parent or another family member such as a grandparent. For this reason, Barnett said advocacy groups can’t rely on child social services to collect the information.
“Nearly 50% of all incarcerated women are mothers,” Barnett said. “So I can only imagine the number of children out there that we have no idea the number, let alone who they are to be able to offer the support that they really need.”