After a Montgomery County woman landed in jail in April on a parole violation, her first instinct was to refuse visits from her 4-year-old son. She didn't want him to see her locked away, wearing a prison uniform.
But Katie Gdowik, the caseworker for the boy, pressed her: Did she really believe having no contact with her son for months would be better than his seeing her in jail?
The mother relented and agreed to let her son visit.
Gdowik's instincts might represent the ideal but not always common response, according to advocates such as Kathleen Creamer, an attorney for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who recently completed a two-year study of services provided to children of inmates.
Creamer, whose study focused on children of Philadelphia inmates, found many caseworkers unfamiliar with how to cut through the bureaucracy of incarceration. Some did not know how to arrange visits or help children mail letters. Now she's launched a statewide effort to improve services for children whose parents are in jail.
"My experience had been that a lot of these kids weren't getting the best services," Creamer said. "They weren't even getting the services that kids whose parents weren't behind bars were getting."
The number of families involved in both the prison and child welfare systems is growing, Creamer says. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, about 2.7 million children nationwide have a parent in jail. And almost 10 percent of incarcerated women and 2 percent of incarcerated men have children in foster care.
Pennsylvania legislators and the White House have commissioned studies on incarcerated parents and their impact on children. Even Sesame Street has introduced a Muppet whose father is in jail.
"People are really starting to get this issue," said Creamer, 36, who has worked with the child welfare system for most of her career. "It's an exciting time for those who are passionate about helping kids in these circumstances."
As part of her project, a fellowship sponsored by Philadelphia's Stoneleigh Foundation, she developed tools to make it easier for parents and children to keep in touch, such as a "protect your rights" flier for parents, a form letter to simplify sending mail, and "frequently asked questions" for caseworkers.
Creamer hopes to soon present those materials to counties beyond Philadelphia as simple, inexpensive ways of filling gaps in care. She also is advocating in Harrisburg for changes to laws surrounding parental rights.
Pennsylvania had the nation's sixth-highest inmate population at the end of 2012, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with just over 51,000 people incarcerated statewide.
In the case of the Montgomery County mother, having a caseworker who was familiar with issues surrounding incarceration made the difference.
After the woman's release, she worked closely with her son's caseworker, his paternal grandmother, and his foster mother on developing a plan to regain custody and provide a stable home for him. This week, about three months after the woman's release from jail, a judge awarded her custody.
"She used her experience in jail as a learning experience for him, by explaining she had made a mistake," said Gdowik, the caseworker. "She was very actively involved in her son's care."
Laurie O'Connor, director of the Montgomery County Office of Children and Youth, estimated that 12 percent of foster children have a parent in jail. The growing number of children in both categories has led to a greater focus of care, she said.
"We work very hard to be aware of the fact that kids need their parents," she said. "One overarching principle has been to remember that incarcerated parents have many of the same rights as any other parents."
Part of a welfare agency's job is to break misconceptions about parents in jail, Creamer said, namely the assumption that they are unfit.
Courts regulate contact between abusive parents and children, but Creamer said most mothers in jail are serving time for nonviolent offenses, so it may not be in the child's best interest for the mother to lose permanent custody.
"There's a cultural bias on the part of some caseworkers and foster parents," she said. "There's some thinking that these families aren't worth preserving."
Deirdre Gordon, administrator for Children and Youth Services in Delaware County, said caseworkers there are trained to consider that a drug relapse or minor offense may not mean someone doesn't have a good relationship with his or her child.
"Many, if not most, of these parents will be out again and back in the child's life," she said.
Managing children whose parents are in prison can strain a county's limited resources, she said. They need caseworkers to drive them to biweekly visits, prepare them for the visit, stay with them, and debrief afterward. These visits are more challenging when a parent is in a facility outside county lines, Gordon said.
State law requires the child welfare system to work toward reuniting a foster child with his parents within a year, or else file for termination of parental rights. But jail time can complicate that, Gordon said, and judges should be able to show flexibility if a parent has worked to stay in contact with a child through letters and visits, and if there is a good plan in place for after jail.
Creamer wants similar changes.
"People don't realize how many kids in foster care are affected by this," she said. "When women are incarcerated, the first question they have is always, 'What's happening with my kids? Am I going to lose custody?' "