What Now for Separation of American Women from their Children?

Growth in U.S. female incarceration. Image credit: Prison Policy Initiative

Some 25 years ago I was living in Church Hill, then a sketchy Richmond neighborhood in the early stages of gentrification. One night police lights were flashing in my front window, so I stepped outside to see what was happening. Halfway down the block, a woman on the sidewalk was clutching an infant and bawling as police were confronting her. The police, it transpired, were arresting her on a charge relating to activities in her abode, a notorious crack house, and they had to haul her downtown. “Please don’t take my baby!” she wailed. “Please don’t take my baby!”

Curious, I inspected the premises. Other than a mattress on the floor, the house was bereft of furniture. The stink of dirty diapers permeated every room. I shuddered to think what kind of care the baby was receiving from a crack-addict mother. And I kept thinking, lady, if you don’t want to be separated from your baby, you should have thought about that before you started smoking cocaine. Even so, it was impossible not to feel compassion. The woman’s addiction had not smothered her maternal instinct. She was truly piteous.

I fully confess my ignorance of the inner workings of the U.S. criminal justice system, but it is my impression is that there was nothing unusual about the scene I witnessed, and that nothing significant has changed in the administration of justice since. If a woman is arrested for breaking the law, she is charged with a crime and taken to jail, where she may or may not get bail. She is held there until her trial. If found guilty, she goes to prison. As an inevitable part of the process, the mother is separated from her children, often for a considerable length of time. 

In 2015 the Virginia prison system incarcerated 3,236 female inmates. (A roughly equal number were held in local jails.) The most frequent offenses, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, were larceny/fraud (38%); drug sales (14%); robbery (8%); and drug possession (6%). The racial breakdown: 62% white and 37% black. The average age was almost 38. Sixty-two percent were separated from minor children.

The criminal justice system has been separating women from their children pretty much forever. The system has procedures for providing care for the children — handing them over to relatives, holding them in orphanages, placing them in foster homes. There may be other options I’m not familiar with. While that system has been subject to criticism from time to time — sometimes children fall between the institutional cracks — I don’t recall anyone objecting to the underlying necessity of removing children from women who are charged and convicted of crimes.

Even a recent study by the leftist Prison Policy Initiative, which absurdly manages to find injustice in the treatment of women in a prison population in which 90% of the inmates are men, mentioned the issue of children only in passing, and mainly in the context that female inmates should be allowed more face-to-face time with them.

Now, over the course of a two or three weeks, the nation has totally flipped on the issue — not out of concern for American citizens caught in the criminal justice system, but for families seeking to enter the country illegally. All of a sudden, it’s an affront to the country’s moral conscience that children are separated from mothers being held in detention while awaiting adjudication. My point is not to criticize or defend the behavior of either President Trump or his enemies in the media, but to explore the implications of this new way of thinking for the administration of criminal justice here in Virginia.

If it is a shocking violation of American values to remove children from parents entering the country illegally, is it a shocking violation of American values to do the same with American citizens breaking state laws? If justice requires ending the practice for Guatemalans and Salvadorans entering California, does logic now impel us to do the same for Americans here in Virginia? If so, are we morally obligated to overhaul Virginia’s criminal justice system so mothers are never again separated from their young children before they are convicted of a crime and sent to prison?

Taking President Trump out of the equation so we can think calmly and rationally, not viscerally, what criteria do we apply? What is the proper balance between having a humane criminal justice system and one that expeditiously carries out the laws of Virginia? Do we apply one set of rules to immigrants and a harsher set of rules to native-born Americans? Or do we overhaul criminal justice across the board, not just at the border? I don’t see how we avoid asking these questions now.

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4 responses to “What Now for Separation of American Women from their Children?”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    What is the alternative? Incarcerate the children along with the adult prisoners? Mommy robs a bank and is arrested. 12 year old Billy has nowhere to go because Daddy hasn’t been seen in quite some time. There are only three choices I see …

    1. Let Mommy go because she has a 12 year old child
    2. Separate Mommy and the 12 year old making sure to provide for the welfare of the 12 year old
    3. Incarcerate the 12 year old along with Mommy in prison

    I guess the liberals would like to see either 1 or 3. Here’s the problem with 3 in the context of the illegal immigrants – who protects the kiddies from the inevitable miscreants in the mix at the detention centers? Keep in mind that the age of consent in 21 of Mexico’s 32 states is 12. Lovely.

  2. Yes, lovely. But you are neglecting the nature of the crime alleged here. Last I heard, illegal entry into the U.S. is a non-violent misdemeanor. How often do we imprison (rather than book and release pending trial) in the case of non-violent misdemeanors? Especially if it means separation from a dependent minor? I agree, BTW, that locking them up together is hardly an improvement over separation. Although — given the treatment of the hispanic children locked up in that federal Shenandoah Valley facility, as called out by our own Governor, I’m not sure that locking them up separately is any safer for the children.

    You are also neglecting the moral turpitude, or lack of it, in the individuals at issue here. When it comes to administering the law, we endow the “system” with lots of discretion — to arrest or not in the first place, to prosecute or not, to lock ’em up or not, to accommodate family needs or not — and here, we have a chief executive and his appointee the head of DOJ saying, “I order you not to use your discretion; discretion is no longer part of our notion of justice when it comes to immigration.” As JB recounts above it’s tough even to blame the crack addict for her daughter’s dilemma; how much moreso for a mother desperate to remove her child from the hell that is rural El Salvador? Contrast this with the moral turpitude of the U.S. officials who have take these minors off to detention centers and denied the parent(s) any further contact with them, let alone any opportunity to hire these now-unaccompanied, non-English-speaking minors a lawyer to navigate the system for them and perhaps find relatives already in the U.S. Indeed no parent-child phone calls are allowed, or even possible, because no one in authority knows which children have been sent where.

    The administration has attempted to redirect attention from “strict enforcement” by blaming the illegals’ choice not to go to a proper port of entry and apply there for asylum, as our laws invite them to do, and “trust the system to work.” As numerous articles have described, the asylum application system is badly disfunctional; and even to the extent it spits out the occasional asylum decision, waiting months to years for that decision (with no legal means of support in the meanwhile) is hardly practical for that single parent and child. Why is the asylum system, a key part of the immigration system as a whole, disfunctional? Briefly, for 20 years Congress has failed to pass reasonable legislative guidelines that deal with legal and illegal immigration fairly compassionately, and Congress has also failed to appropriate the funds necessary to staff and adjudicate the system we already have. This, notwithstanding the many domestic business interests pressing for functional immigration reform because they need the professional expertise and the raw labor we are so categorically and callously excluding. On yet another front our economy is the loser here.

    No, this public backlash is not the result of “the liberals.” This is a stain on our entire government that even conservatives with a conscience recognize. This is the future of the Republican Party going down the drain.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    “The two-year-old crying Honduran girl featured on the cover of the July issue of Time magazine was never separated from her mother at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Washington Post reported early Friday.

    The girl’s father, Denis Hernandez, explained that his daughter, Yanela Sanchez, and his wife are being held together in a family detention center in Texas.

    They were not separated due to Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy, as the Time cover — which included the caption “Welcome to Trump’s America” and shows president Trump looming over the child menacingly — seemed to suggest.

    Honduran deputy foreign minister Nelly Jerez confirmed Hernandez’s account to Reuters and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a statement to Buzzfeed confirming that Sanchez’s mother was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol near Hidalgo, Tex., on June 12 and they were both then transferred to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas …”

    For more details, see:


    PS – you’ve written a very fine post, Jim. One of your very best.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the fraudulent use of that infamous photograph — I hadn’t heard that. It’s just one more reason I believe nothing — NOTHING — I see or hear from the mainstream media unless I check it out first. MSM credibility is in total collapse. The profession has covered itself with shame. And that’s a very bad thing — someone has to hold President Trump accountable for his innumerable falsehoods. If the MSM has no credibility, whom do we believe?

      We have reached a point in our society where people simply believe what they want to believe. As a polity, we are detaching ourselves from reality.

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