Children are the hidden victims of parental incarceration; reuniting families would change their lives

Screengrab of Cynthia testifying at the legislature

The consequences of incarceration can be a life sentence in many ways. But being separated from your child should not be one of them—especially if you have changed the reason you were removed from their life and can now meet your child’s needs.

After my incarceration, I have navigated obstacles related to housing, employment, and equitable higher education. Those things are extremely difficult to overcome, but being unable to see my children or be actively involved in their lives continues to be an almost unbearable weight.

The scope of family separation as a result of incarceration is devastating and, in some cases, hard to comprehend. For example, according an investigation by the Marshall Project, mothers who are incarcerated and whose children are placed in foster care—but who have not been accused of child neglect, abuse, or endangerment—are still more likely to lose their parental rights than those who physically or sexually assault their children.

Although this issue affects many incarcerated people, its impact on system-impacted women is particularly noteworthy. After all, 81 percent of women in Texas prisons are mothers, and women are generally more likely to be the primary caretakers of their children.

Sadly, even after parents are released from incarceration, their challenges are far from over. For successful reunification to take place, parents need stable housing, employment, and sometimes public benefits; however, these are the resources that are often hardest to come by for people in the reentry process. An added difficulty is the lack of contact that parents may have had with their children during incarceration, due to visitation limitations or long distances from prisons to their family homes.

In situations where reunification should be feasible and would serve the child’s best interests, failure to create pathways to the reinstatement of parental rights can result in the destruction of the parent-child relationship. For more data and statistics, read TCJC’s factsheet on family reunification.

The bottom line is that women like me who are back on our feet deserve the opportunity to support and care for our children. This legislative session, TCJC is supporting a bill that would make that possible. HB 2926 would allow Texas to join 22 other states that already allow for reinstatement of parental rights for people whose rights were terminated as a result of incarceration. This bill would create a clear and accessible path to family reunification for parents who can demonstrate that they have done the work necessary to provide for the best interests of their children.

Another bill that’s been introduced in both the House and Senate (HB 3647 and SB 1349) would address situations where a child is removed from a parent’s care but not placed for adoption and, instead, the parent remains a “possessory conservator.” According to the bill, the child’s placement would be reevaluated after two years and they could be returned to their parent if a judge determined it was in the best interests of the child. This would help previously incarcerated parents who could not afford to keep an attorney to enforce their parental rights, which on average costs $5,000.

My children deserve to know who their mother is today, and they also deserve the guidance and protection that I can give them. My children have not reached adoption and have not needed to be protected from abuse, neglect, or lack of nurturing. For parents like myself who have made a mistake, been held accountable, and come home to be a productive member of the community, it should be our inherent right to raise our children. It should be our right to shower them with the abundance of love and patience that it takes to raise a child who has experienced the trauma of family separation.

For too long, children have been the hidden victims of a state that relies too heavily on incarceration. Family reunification would change the lives of those children—and mothers like me.

About the Author

Cynthia Simons, RPS, MHPS

Cynthia Simons

Cynthia Simons is the Grant Me The Wisdom Foundation (GMTW) Women's Justice Director at the Texas Center for Justice and Equity, having joined the organization in mid-2020. Her passion for civil rights and justice reform stems back to the age of 16, when she graduated from high school and attended the University of Texas at San Antonio. That passion has since been fueled by a firsthand view of the criminal punishment system: As a formerly incarcerated woman, Cynthia works to protect women’s rights and ensure that women have access to resources and rehabilitative services before, during, and after interactions with the system. This includes the critical need for strategies that promote family connection and reunification. At TCJE, Cynthia works to end mass incarceration and support women and families who have been impacted by the criminal punishment system; she coordinates the Texas Women’s Justice Coalition in support of trauma-informed programming and gender-responsive reforms. She also oversees the Statewide Leadership Council (SLC) on behalf of TCJE, coordinating with the Steering Committee to support and expand the advocacy work of system-impacted Texans. Cynthia holds Re-Entry and Mental Health Peer Specialist Certifications. In 2023, Cynthia was named one of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats' 40 Under 40 and was honored by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus as an Outstanding Texan.