Incarcerated Mothers Law Project

For over 20 years, a team of committed attorneys has provided legal advice, information and advocacy to women in jail or prison. Through this unique project, incarcerated mothers receive critical assistance to help them preserve and protect their parental rights and maintain family ties while they are separated from their children.

Every month, IMLP volunteer attorneys and law students meet one-on-one with women incarcerated at an upstate prison or in a New York City jail, providing them with legal counsel on issues including child abuse and neglect, custody, visitation, foster care, termination of parental rights, and adoption. Several times each year, IMLP volunteer attorneys also conduct group educational sessions for incarcerated mothers on these issues in order to help them understand their legal rights and responsibilities while separated from their children.

Why We Help

More than 4,000 children have a mother incarcerated in a New York State correctional facility. Many of these children rarely see or speak with their mothers, if at all. Prolonged separation can cause irreparable damage to the parent-child relationship. Further, when an incarcerated parent has a child in foster care, a prolonged separation could result in a profound legal consequence: permanent loss of parental rights.

Regular family contact improves a child’s well-being and development, eases the process of reunification when the parent returns home, and reduces the likelihood that a mother will return to prison, according to a report by the Correctional Association of New York.

Many obstacles keep incarcerated mothers and their children apart. The suffering that a family experiences when mother and child are separated can be devastating. Fortunately, intervention from IMLP attorneys and law students can make a significant difference in helping mothers in jail or prison maintain meaningful connections with their sons and daughters.

How We Help

IMLP staff recruits, trains, and supports volunteer attorneys from several prominent New York law firms who provide pro bono legal assistance to mothers in need.  In 2015, over 20 pro bono attorneys and 6 law students assisted 165 mothers.  An experienced family law attorney, Ellen Rosenberg, serves as mentor to this team of pro bono attorneys, supervises law students involved with the project, and accompanies lawyers and law students on all jail and prison visits.

Volunteer attorneys currently provide monthly individual legal consultations to incarcerated mothers at two women’s correctional facilities: the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island, a New York City jail, and at the Taconic Correctional Facility, a New York State facility located in Bedford Hills, New York.  Several times each year, IMLP attorneys hold group educational sessions for incarcerated women that address a range of family law topics, including custody, visitation, the child welfare system, foster care, termination of parental rights, and adoption.

IMLP's volunteer attorneys and law students provide incarcerated mothers with a wide range of critical services including:

  • Helping to understand their legal rights and responsibilities as parents
  • Helping to plan for reunification with their children
  • Advocating with foster care agencies to help arrange visits between children in foster care and their incarcerated mothers
  • Locating children within the foster care system
  • Negotiating with family members and friends to bring children in their care for visits with their mothers
  • Helping mothers prepare for family court hearings
  • Documenting steps mothers have taken while incarcerated to maintain contact with their children and to improve parenting skills
  • Coordinating with incarcerated mothers' court appointed counsel for their family court cases
  • Obtaining family court records
  • Reviewing and explaining legal documents
  • Helping to obtain court orders for incarcerated mothers to be produced for family court appearances and
  • When necessary, commencing legal proceedings in family court to petition for visitation or modify or enforce existing family court orders and to help preserve parental rights

Some Recent Case Examples

  • A young incarcerated mother had surrendered parental rights to her baby on the explicit condition that she would have ongoing contact, including visitation, with her daughter. When IMLP volunteers first met her, however, she had not seen her baby in over a year. IMLP attorneys helped her enforce the terms of her agreement. Now, this young mother has consistent and meaningful contact with her daughter, and they recently enjoyed their first visit together.
  • An incarcerated woman was extremely worried because she had suddenly lost contact with her son and his caretaker.  With help from IMLP attorneys, she learned that the family member who had promised to care for the child had fallen on hard times himself and left the child with a neighbor. The neighbor, believing the child had been abandoned, notified child protective authorities who placed him in foster care. A team of IMLP attorneys helped the mother find her son, re-establish a relationship with him, participate in family court proceedings, and successfully reunify with him soon after she was released from prison.
  • The mother of a newborn needed legal counsel and support to plan for the long-term care of her baby. After protracted litigation, IMLP attorneys helped the woman to resolve a termination of parental rights proceeding favorably; negotiate an agreement that ensured the infant would be adopted by a relative approved by the mother; and draft a legal document with terms entitling the mother to maintain a relationship with the child.
  • A mother of two was eager to preserve her parental rights after the relative who had been caring for her children suddenly died and the children’s father was unable to care for them. IMLP attorneys advocated for the children to reside with another relative who was willing to step in. Initially, the relative become a foster parent for the children and later qualified and was appointed to serve as the legal guardian for the children. Under this arrangement, the relative receives ongoing financial support for the children, the children remain in a stable home; their mother is able to maintain the close relationship she always had with her children; she is no longer at risk of having her parental rights terminated; and the family has a strong chance that it will be reunited after the mother’s release from prison.

If you are a lawyer and you would like to volunteer for the Incarcerated Mothers Law Project, please contact Sara Effron, VOLS Associate Director, at seffron@volsprobono.org.