Dependency and Incarcerated Parents by Randall Enlow

Someone in handcuffs

Incarcerated parents have an especially difficult time maintaining a meaningful role in their dependency cases for many reasons, including:

·             DSHS often has little to no information on the parent, including their name and basic whereabouts. They often rely on the other parent for that information which for obvious reasons may not be reliable. Even so, prison facilities often make service of the initial dependency petition and documents complicated or impossible.

·             Once a parent is ordered by the court to participate in a service they most often find that their facility does not offer or allow such a service while in custody.

·             Many facilities allow attorneys to contact their clients by phone only if there is a court-ordered hearing. Attorneys thus often face the choice of in-person contact or written letter, which is especially problematic for public defenders who may carry up to 80 cases and have a large number of those clients in facilities in all areas of the state (or sometimes, out of state). Even when an inmate receives mail, there may be significant delays in sending and receiving and they often do not have the money to send a letter back. Filing timely responses for incarcerated parents is nearly always difficult and sometimes impossible.

·             Dependency court maintains a fluid calendar – meaning an 8:30 a.m. hearing may not occur until 11:00 a.m. This is a problem as typically parents must have their DOC counselor present for the call, so they must have the hearing start at a definite time and could miss their hearing entirely if court congestion cannot accommodate a definite time.

These are only a few of the things that make engagement in a dependency case very hard for incarcerated parents. This is especially troublesome given many incarcerated parents are the most viable or only placement option for their children when released. This heightens an attorney’s responsibility to aggressively ensure the voices of their incarcerated clients can be heard.


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