A bill introduced in the Wisconsin Legislature seeks to broaden the ability of the state to terminate the parental rights of incarcerated individuals. AB627, a partisan bill sponsored and introduced by Assembly Republicans, would allow for the involuntary termination of parental rights of inmates whose incarceration is considered “substantial” or “repeated” by the juvenile court.
Under current Wisconsin law, provisions allowing for involuntary termination of the parental rights of individuals already exist The existing provisions state that there must be some sort of risk of harm to the child in order for the juvenile court to intervene and revoke an individual’s parental rights. However, AB627 seeks to make a parent’s incarcerated status itself a deciding factor in the involuntary termination of parental rights. If this bill were to be successfully passed, one of the conditions for involuntary termination would include:
“That the parent is likely to continue to be incarcerated for a substantial period of the child's minority. In determining whether the parent is likely to continue to be incarcerated for a substantial period of the child's minority, the court may consider whether the parent has a history of repeated incarceration.”
The legislation does not specifically define what “substantial” or “repeated” might mean in regard to incarcerated individuals, which renders the overly broad language of AB627 to be problematic. Since the action is permanent and cannot be appealed or reversed, revoking parental rights is an extreme measure and should only be considered as a last resort for the most serious cases.
Having positive parental relationships is an essential component of a child’s healthy growth and development. Research indicates that parental separation can be deeply traumatizing for children. In the 2017 National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) report Hidden Consequences: The Impact Of Incarceration On Dependent Children, author Eric Martin writes: “Although each case is unique and each child responds differently, research has established that a parent’s incarceration poses several threats to a child’s emotional, physical, educational, and financial well-being.” Some of these effects include:
- Increased rates of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression
- Increased instances of aggressive behavior or other behavioral problems
- Lowered rates of educational attainment; increased likelihood of being suspended or expelled from schools
- Increased likelihood that the child will themselves be incarcerated as an adult
Strong family networks can also be critically important to the incarcerated parent, as family often serves as the primary support system for incarcerated individuals. According to Martin, “Research shows that visits by family and loved ones reduce recidivism among incarcerated individuals and that strong family support is one of the biggest factors in a successful re-entry experience.”
It is entirely possible for parents to sustain and nurture positive and meaningful relationships with their children while incarcerated. Public policy should be crafted in the spirit of supporting these relationships to foster more positive outcomes for both the child and the parent. As Martin writes,
“…research suggests that the strength or weakness of the parent-child bond and the quality of the child and family’s social support system play significant roles in the child’s ability to overcome challenges and succeed in life. Therefore, it is critical that correctional practitioners develop strong partnerships with law enforcement, public schools, and child welfare agencies to understand the unique dynamics of the family in question and try to ensure a safety net for the child and successful re-entry for the incarcerated parent.”
In light of available data regarding the importance of fostering positive relationships between children and parents, on its face the purpose of AB627 seems mean-spirited and overly punitive at best. Involuntary termination of parental rights of incarcerated individuals would serve little purpose beyond further punishing incarcerated parents as well as their children. Public policy should enhance the public good, and Wisconsin legislators should be working to help foster positive parent-child relationships rather than the opposite.
Ways to take action:
Testify at the public hearing. The hearing on AB627 is scheduled at the State Capitol on Wednesday, December 1 at 10:00 am in Room 417 North. Information regarding how to testify at a hearing can be found here: https://legis.wisconsin.gov/about/testify.
Call or email your representatives. Visit https://legis.wisconsin.gov/ and A) enter your address Under the “Who Are My Legislators” field, then hit the “Find My Legislator” button, or B) find your legislator by clicking on the interactive state map.
Read the full text of AB 627 here: https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2021/related/proposals/ab627.pdf
Read the report Hidden Consequences: The Impact Of Incarceration On Dependent Children:
Related Wisconsin Green Party Platform Planks:
Sec. II.H.2 Prevent crime by promoting economic justice, education, and programs that create opportunity; the solutions to violence, poverty, alienation, anger and political inequality are the key to criminal justice reform.
Sec. II.H.11 Encourage restorative justice, as an alternative to incarceration, through community restorative courts.
(Learn more about the WI Green Party Platform: https://www.wisconsingreenparty.org/platform)