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Jailed moms want their kids back

Dazurae Blankenship of Lexington understands what it's like to be a "throwaway mom."

Blankenship's son, Aden, now 5, was born while she was at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women at Pee Wee Valley, and she asked a friend, J.B. Hawes of Shelbyville, to keep Aden. Since she was released in 2006, she's been trying to regain custody of her son.

A new University of Kentucky report, called "Throwaway Moms," shows that, for a woman in Kentucky, receiving a jail or prison sentence often means permanently losing custody of a child.

"I thought I was the only one going through this," Blankenship said in a recent interview. "That's not the case. There are a lot of us.''

The study — authored by Suzanne Allen while she was working on her master's degree in social work, and professors Chris Flaherty and Gretchen Ely — joins a growing chorus of officials, lawyers and social workers who say the group needs more attention.

"These women are victims of inflexible and punitive criminal justice and child welfare policies," said Allen.

The report, which will be published in May in the magazine Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, includes interviews with 26 women, identified by pseudonyms, who were incarcerated at the Fayette County Detention Center from May to September 2007 for non-violent crimes related to substance abuse.

Of the 26, eight reported having their parental rights terminated for at least one child and two had children placed in foster care. The majority of the other inmates' children were placed with family members while the women were in jail, and, in some of those cases, there was no plan for the women to regain custody.

David Richart, executive director for the National Institute on Children, Youth and Families in Louisville, said he has advocated for at least eight Kentucky women who lost custody of children because of incarceration.

In those cases, the state was not allowing relatives to take care of the children until their mothers could care for them, he said.

Child protection workers were "making an automatic assumption that someone in prison is not a fit parent," Richart said.

Placing children with relatives "is always our first choice to maintain family connections and ensure less disruption for the child," said Anya Weber, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

A custody battle

Blankenship, who is not one of the women in the UK report, said she initially served time for forgery and burglary and later had to go back to jail for a few months because of a missed visit with her parole officer.

Now she's fighting Hawes, with whom she left her son, for custody of Aden in Shelby Family Court. (Hawes and Aden recently appeared on national television when Alyson Myatt, Aden's nanny, ran barefoot through their burning house to save Aden.)

Blankenship, who recently completed a 10-month program at Chrysalis House, a Lexington treatment center, now lives in an apartment affiliated with Chrysalis House and is in recovery.

She has custody of her 9-month-old daughter and joint custody of her 14-year-old son. She has twice monthly weekend visits with Aden, she said.

Blankenship's attorney, retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Wohlander, said there were sound reasons to question giving Hawes sole custody, but he fears they are being dismissed because of Blankenship's history.

Both Hawes and Myatt also have criminal records, he said.

Wohlander said Hawes has a 1983 felony burglary conviction from Texas and owns two handguns, even though felons are not supposed to have guns.

After fighting with her mother, Myatt was charged in Shelby County with misdemeanor assault and domestic violence. She pled guilty to a charge of harassment, according to court records.

Blankenship said she is concerned about her son's safety, especially in the wake of the fire, and believes her fears are being dismissed because she served time in prison.

"It's my son who is paying for my past mistakes," Blankenship said in a recent interview at Chrysalis House.

Hawes' attorney Carl Devine of Lexington said that the court gave Hawes custody early on and that an attorney appointed for the boy has recommended Hawes retain primary custody.

"There's some sort of perception that Mr. Hawes is just trying to keep this child from her. That's not accurate at all," said Devine. "The fact is that he just wants to make sure that the best interest of the child is met."

"The system is just so broken," said Wohlander, who has taken Blankenship's case without payment. "Throwaway moms get into these situations, and there are no financial resources. They get steamrolled," he said.

"I would love to see a clinic where lawyers and law students help women" who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.

At the prison at Pee Wee Valley where Blankenship served time, inmate mothers of newborns and children up to the age of 3 years may have five bonding visits each week for a maximum of two hours each visit , according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lisa Lamb.

Lamb said state corrections officials are aware of the issues raised in the UK study and have been working with groups that provide care for children while their parents are incarcerated.

She said the Cabinet offers programs that allow "inmates to have as much contact with their children as they can."

Blankenship said that while she was allowed frequent visits with Aden at the prison so she could bond with him, she would have also benefited from counseling about navigating the court system.

Where are the children?

When a woman is arrested, unless a child is visibly present, it is not routine for police officers to ask about children and their care.

Becky B. Ritchey, co-founder of the National Association for Children of Incarcerated Parents, based at Eastern Kentucky University, said there is often little information shared by law enforcement, corrections and child welfare agencies.

"Study after study proves that the long-term negative effects associated with parental absence due to incarceration is substantial," Ritchey said. "Many times, it can lead to a cycle of inter-generational crime and delinquency, mental and behavioral issues, low academic achievement and substance abuse."

In Kentucky, data on the number of incarcerated parents or their children is not routinely collected.

The Cabinet does not know how many children in foster care have parents in prison.

Department of Corrections officials don't keep track of how many of the 1,565 female inmates identified as mothers have children under the age of 18, although 209 inmates received prenatal care in 2008 and 92 had babies while incarcerated, according to Lamb.

Losing parental rights

Meanwhile, the UK study found that, for imprisoned women, the implications of tough drug-sentencing policies are complicated by the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

The act was passed in response to the growing number of children lingering in the foster care system and mandates that parental rights be terminated if a child has not been in the parent's custody for 15 of the last 22 months.

Kentucky does not consider incarceration to be an exception to those time frames. The average prison sentence for a woman is 18 months and drug treatment often takes many months as well, according to Allen's article.

Several of the female inmates interviewed at the Fayette Detention Center reported that child protective services convinced them to voluntarily terminate their parental rights by promising that they could see their children a few times each year, according to the study. The women said they were told that they would never see their children again if the court terminated their parental rights without their cooperation.

Weber said Cabinet officials haven't seen the final version of the article.

But terminating parental rights must be approved by a judge and Cabinet officials don't make such a recommendation unless there is evidence that the parent can't care for the child, Weber said.

Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico have adopted laws that take imprisonment and treatment times into account, according to a 2009 report from The Urban Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

And the New York General Assembly is considering such a bill. Allen said she will lobby Kentucky's General Assembly for a similar law as well as for policy changes.

"It is essential," Allen said, "for child welfare agencies to hire workers who work specifically with incarcerated women."