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Moms in prison shouldn't lose rights to kids so quickly, some say

Paula Wissel

Should going to prison mean losing your parental rights forever?  Legal advocates say that’s what’s been happening in Washington State, especially to women who are incarcerated.

Legal Voice and other groups are pushing a bill, HB1284, that would give judges more discretion in deciding whether to put children up for adoption when a mother or father is behind bars.

“When you’re terminated, that’s it, you’re done. You don’t get to talk to your kids until they’re 18 and they come and seek you out, hopefully,” said Nadine Miller.

Miller, who says she's been clean and sober for five years, lost her three older children to adoption after going to prison on a heroin possession charge.

The majority of women in prison in Washington are non-violent drug offenders who serve sentences of less than 15 months. Still, that’s often enough time to lose their parental rights for good.

Proponents of HB1284 say there are plenty of examples of a mother turning her life around, kicking her drug habits and still losing her children permanently because of the strict timeline. Under the law, termination of parental rights begins if a child has been in foster care 15 out of the past 22 months.

The timeline was included in The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act. The Act was intended to prevent children from languishing in foster care. But some say, when it comes to parents in prison, the Act has had unintended consequences, that in some cases children would be better off if they could reunite with their biological parents.

(For the complete story, click the listen button above.)

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.