January 22, 2020
Beyond Bars: Disrupting the foster care to prison pipeline
By Paula Carvalho
Program Officer, Youth Homelessness

We’ve all heard of the school to prison pipeline, but there is another insidious structure feeding the prison system: foster care.  

On December 5th, I spent the day with men from the Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) at the Monroe Penitentiary, as they described their journeys toward serving life sentences in prison, which they say felt inevitable. Their ranks are thick with stories of abusive foster homes, committing crimes of survival, and countless social workers—but they also want to use their experience to prevent other young people from experiencing what they did. Their journeys may have been inevitable, they said, but that doesn’t have to be true for young people in state care today.  

The State Raised Working Group, a subgroup of CLO comprised of men who experienced foster care prior to serving long prison sentences, works to raise awareness of a system that left them ill-equipped for life beyond state care and that seamlessly fed them into the criminal justice system. Last month they came together to share their findings with Washington state leaders in the foster care and justice communities.

Their stories and solutions rang true to me as an alumna of foster care. There are a lot of similarities between being a ward of the state and a prisoner. The men shared stories of living in someone else’s space, never feeling at home, having someone else decide their every move, being shuffled between locations/buildings/homes like cattle; and a lack of a consistent caring adult or family.

The men offered solutions they thought would have helped them and challenged us to think about what we could do to make the system better, like legislation to ensure both prisons and juvenile detentions were not privatized. We discussed the important role of mentors and community building, as well as the injustice of inmates being paid 42 cents for an hours’ worth of work. We also discussed what it would take to disrupt this cycle, starting with an understanding that system-involved young people need the same things every other young person needs: stability, normalcy, and a home that respects and understands the different backgrounds of those who come through their doors.

Toward the end of our visit, Ross Hunter, Secretary of Department of Children, Youth, and Families, pledged his support to addressing the foster care to prison pipeline.

The State-Raised Working Group had three main recommendations:

  1. Eliminate bail for foster youth who commit minor crimes: The state currently cannot post bail for foster youth, forcing them to stay locked up unnecessarily (in the counties where juvenile bail exists). If the state is the guardian for these young people, they need to be accountable for caring for them, which cannot mean leaving them in cells, deepening their trauma.  
  2. On in-home visits, address foster youth first and then foster parents: The men shared stories of social workers visiting them in homes and speaking to the foster parents first, usually because foster parents had an issue/complaint, and feeling their needs were secondary to their foster parents. As one man said, when this happens, you are telling foster youth they are not the priority. Others suggested that social workers should be accompanied by someone with lived experience who can help social workers better understand what it’s like for young people in these often-stressful situations.
  3. Experience in the foster care system should be a mitigating factor in sentencing: We know much more about the long-term impact of trauma and that should inform sentencing for people who were system-involved as young people.  The trauma of being in foster care is often ignored in determining sentence length.

This experience for me underscored the importance of listening to those who have been system-involved when advocating for changes. We can break the cycle of child welfare to prison. And it is on us to take what we are hearing from these men and turn it into real changes in the way our state serves its young people.