The Relationship Between Maternal Incarceration and Foster Care Placement

Amy Dworsky*, Allen Harden, Robert Goerge
Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 1313 E. 60th St., IL 60637-2830, USA.

© 2011 Dworsky et al;

open-access license: This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License (CC-BY 4.0), a copy of which is available at: This license permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 1313 E. 60th St., IL 60637-2830, USA; Tel: 773-256-5164; Fax: 773-256-5364; E-mail:


We use administrative data to examine the temporal relationship between maternal incarceration and foster care placement among incarcerated mothers and their children in Cook County, Illinois. We also compare the discharge outcomes of foster children whose mothers were incarcerated to the discharge outcomes of all foster children in Illinois. We found that more than three quarters of the children who entered foster care did so prior to the mother’s first observed incarceration and that children whose mothers had been incarcerated were more likely to be adopted and less likely to be reunified than foster children generally. The implications of these findings for both the child welfare and criminal justice systems are discussed.

Keywords: Maternal incarceration, foster care, adoption and safe families act.