False Equivalence on Trump Family Separation Policy and Domestic Foster Care

Richard Gelles of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research

 The United States government’s policy of separating undocumented children from their parents at the southern border was, and remains, both egregious and a form of government child maltreatment. Thousands of children were separated at the onset of the Department of Justice’s new family separation policy. Weeks after a federal court ordered the government to reunite children with their caregivers, hundreds of children remain separated and detained in facilities across the U.S.

Given my experience in the child welfare field, I was not entirely surprised that in the wake of the government’s actions to separate children from parents, other parent’s rights advocates piggybacked their concern about child separation onto the issue of the tragedy at the border. There are a number of examples where writers have used border separations as a means of critiquing the foster care system.

In a Time column headlined “I was in Foster Care. Family Separation Isn’t Just a Problem at the Border,” Sherry Lachman directly compares the problem of border separation to foster care:

It’s shameful just how many children our country unnecessarily removes from their families and places in foster care, a problem that extends well beyond the current and extreme example of the families unjustly ripped apart at our border …

Rachel Blustain follows the same pattern in the headline of her article in The Nation, entitled “Our Foster Care System Shouldn’t Separate Families Either.”

My argument is that comparing the separation of children at the U.S. border to the case of foster care and the government removing children from their parents is a gross false equivalency. The comparison just does not hold up.

First, the child separation immigration policy is a process without due process. Children were separated because neither they nor their parents/caregivers had required documentation. Neither the children nor their parents were provided lawyers, and few even had hearings. Placement into foster care requires due process including court hearings and evidence, and the parents often are afforded counsel to protect their rights (the provision of counsel varies from state to state).

Second, the draconian separation of children at the border was done with a broad brush in service of a “zero-tolerance” policy. It is because of the nature of due process, and the functioning of the American child welfare system, that the vast majority of children suspected of being victims of maltreatment remain with their parents and caregivers. Of the children referred as suspected victims of maltreatment, a mere 2 percent are placed into foster care. In cases where the referral was substantiated, only one-quarter of the children are placed outside their home.

Child welfare agencies are required by law to make reasonable efforts to keep children with their parents. By contrast, the Justice Department required the Department of Homeland Security to separate every family at the border, irrespective of the nature of the case.

Third, separation is likely traumatic for any child. But in the case of foster care, children are separated from parents after a due process legal procedure determines that the children’s safety and well-being would be jeopardized if the children remained at home. No such examination occurs prior to border separation.

The debate over the strengths and weaknesses of the American child welfare system is complex enough without muddying the waters with false equivalencies.

Richard Gelles is the managing faculty director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania.


If you are interested in reading more about federal child welfare and juvenile justice policy, read our annual special issue “Kids on the Hill: A Special Issue on Child Welfare Policy” by clicking here!


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