NEW YORK — Christina Voight considers herself lucky, though she spent the first three years of her son's life in prison. She managed to regain custody of him, at a time when many imprisoned mothers nationwide are being stripped of their parental rights.
"Women are losing their children right and left," said Voight, who now works for a group advocating criminal justice reforms. "We talk about violation of human rights in Third World countries, but we don't look in our own backyard."
Advocacy groups who work with imprisoned women say proceedings to terminate parental rights have become more common in the past few years as a consequence of the Adoption and Safe Families Act.
Even critics of the 1997 act say it has a worthy goal -- to promote adoption of children who would otherwise languish in foster care without a permanent home. There is agreement that termination makes sense if an imprisoned mother has been abusive or is serving a long sentence.
But advocacy groups say there have been heartbreaking consequences for some mothers who deserve to keep their children. The act directs state governments to start termination proceedings once the parent of a child in foster care has been in prison at least 15 months.
"Even if women have relatively short sentences for nonviolent offenses -- if they don't have family members to step in, they lose their kids," said Joanne Archibald of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers.
Most of the estimated 200,000 children with incarcerated mothers live with a grandparent or other relative, generally exempting them from the threat of termination. But advocacy groups say about 10% of these children are in foster care because their mothers have no relatives able to assume caretaker duties.
Neither federal nor private agencies have compiled nationwide statistics on how many prisoners have lost their parental rights. But Philip Genty, a Columbia University law professor, said there is no question that termination proceedings involving imprisoned mothers have increased, primarily because the federal act limits the discretion of state child-protection agencies.
"It sweeps very broadly if it kicks in after only 15 months," he said. "Termination is certainly appropriate in some cases, but some of these women may be very good mothers, and the child's interests wouldn't be served by severing that relationship."
Christina Voight initially had little chance to develop a close relationship with her son, Lance. She gave birth to him in July 1998 shortly after starting a 4- to 8-year sentence at a prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y., for an arson conviction that she bitterly contested.
Lance was placed in a foster home soon after his birth; Voight said she later learned that conditions in the home were abysmal.
When authorities commenced proceedings to terminate Voight's parental rights and seek an adoptive home for Lance, she was able to obtain legal assistance -- something many imprisoned women find difficult. After some legal wrangling, the state halted the termination process and allowed Lance to live in a group home run by Hour Children, a New York City program that seeks to help incarcerated women preserve their families.
Over the next three years, until her release in December 2001, Voight was able to receive frequent visits from Lance and watch him overcome early developmental problems. They now live together in an Hour Children residence in Queens; she works in Manhattan for a criminal-justice reform project run by the Open Society Institute.
Now applying to law school, Voight hopes to be part of an effort to make the Adoption and Safe Families Act more flexible and to delay the timetable for starting termination proceedings. She also wants to encourage "open adoptions," enabling mothers who do relinquish parental rights to remain in regular contact with their children.
Once parental rights are terminated, it is usually impossible for a mother to reverse that judgment. And even if adoptive parents allow a birth mother to stay in touch with her child, they can cut off that contact without repercussions, advocacy groups say.
Voight, while at Bedford Hills, used her firsthand legal experience to help run workshops for fellow inmates struggling to maintain ties with their children.
"Most of these women weren't being represented in court," Voight said. "We taught them to be lawyers, to advocate for themselves."
Among Voight's mentors at Bedford Hills was Kathy Boudin, a former leader of the Weather Underground who remains imprisoned for her role in a 1981 armored-car robbery. Boudin -- whose son, Chesa, recently was named a Rhodes Scholar -- has co-authored a handbook for incarcerated women whose children are in foster care.