The harmful effects of the criminal legal system on children are well-established. For years, evidence has shown that a parent’s involvement with the criminal legal system can harm kids, and incarcerating children has lifelong consequences. We’ve reported on efforts in several states to mitigate the negative impact of the criminal legal system on children but seldom discussed how the criminal legal and child welfare systems are deeply interwoven. A growing number of advocates and experts are bringing these connections to light and are organizing for momentous change. This briefing draws attention to their work to argue that, by expanding our view beyond jails and prisons to include these related systems, advocates and policymakers can safeguard against creating prisons by another name.

By the numbers: involvement in each system

Presently, the child welfare system surveils millions of families each year, many of whom are also impacted by the criminal legal system. Though data about the overlap between the two systems are faulty and likely underreported,  data about strictly parental incarceration or child protective services  involvement are more accessible. In our August 2022 briefing, Both sides of the bars: How mass incarceration punishes families, we explained the magnitude of the criminal legal system’s impact on children and families, noting that nearly half of people in prison are parents to minors and that 1.25 million children are impacted by parental imprisonment on any given day. 

Annual government reports illustrate the size and scope of child protective services. In 2021, nearly 4 million calls were made to those agencies, alleging that around 7.2 million children were being neglected or abused. Each year, approximately half of these calls are immediately determined to be illegitimate, lack enough information, or otherwise fail to meet the criteria for a child maltreatment report. In other words, rampant overreporting is the norm. Even when such reports are screened out, mere contact with the child welfare system can have damaging effects on families that last for decades, much like collateral consequences from brushes with the criminal legal system.

The consequences of dual-system involvement

Child welfare investigations bring parents and children in closer contact with the criminal legal system, increasing the likelihood of dual-system involvement. A 2010 study noted that there are four likely pathways to a family becoming involved with the child welfare and criminal legal systems simultaneously:

  1. A parent’s arrest coincides with child welfare system involvement, such as an arrest leading to a maltreatment report;
  2. A parent’s record is determined to compromise their child’s safety;
  3. Relatives who might ordinarily be considered for next-of-kin placement (placement of a child in the temporary or long-term custody of a non-parent relative) are determined ineligible due to their record;
  4. A child enters foster care because of issues with the temporary guardian they are staying with while their parent is incarcerated.

Read the full article about the criminal legal and child welfare systems by Emma Peyton Williams at Prison Policy Initiative.