Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice Advocates Condemn Border Policies

As the Trump policy of separating asylum-seeking families at the border gave way to uncertainty over what comes next, hundreds of leaders from American youth service organizations strongly condemned the administration’s separation and detention policies.

Following is a collection of statements from various groups in the field.

From several hundred people under the heading “Concerned Child Welfare Scholars, Practitioners & Members of the Child Welfare Community:”

As child welfare scholars, practitioners and people who have had lived experiences with the child welfare system and the harmful experiences of separation from one’s family, we are alarmed by reports that more than 2,000 migrant children have been separated from their parents and detained by the Department of Homeland Security. More than thirty years of research tells us that separating children from their parents is detrimental to children’s short- and long-term physical and emotional health. Parent-child separation should only be used when children are at imminent risk of serious harm and used as a practice of last-resort. To date, the Department of Homeland Security has offered no evidence that detained children are at risk of such harm, thus these detrimental separations are unwarranted and should be stopped immediately.

Moreover, we are very concerned about the detention of migrant children, including children under the age of three, in warehouse-like facilities. The research on institutional care is clear – institutional care is antithetical to child well-being. Such facilities cannot provide the familial care children need to thrive, and they are discouraged in federal law (see the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act). In addition, the existing child welfare system does not have the resources or the capacity to take more migrant children into foster care. Nearly a half-million children reside in foster care on any given day, and child welfare systems across the country face chronic foster care shortages. Child welfare systems should not take on the care of migrant children, when these children have safe and loving parents who are willing and able to provide the care they need.

On June 20, 2018, President Trump signed an executive order replacing the Administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents with family detention. While the specifics of this policy have not yet been articulated, on its face, the policy is neither sufficient nor humane. The 1997 Flores settlement effectively bars the detention of migrant children alongside their parents and for good reason – detention settings, on the whole, are not developmentally appropriate for children and therefore inappropriate for families.

As child welfare scholars, practitioners, and people who have lived experiences with the separation of children from families, we are deeply committed to the welfare of all children. We add our voice to the chorus of child welfare organizations and professional groups – including the Child Welfare League of America, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association, and National Association of Social Workers – calling for an end to the Department of Homeland Security’s harmful and inhumane practice of separating migrant children from their parents and the detention of families as a whole.

From a group of 14 CEOs from some of the largest human services providers in the country:

“Separating immigrant children from their parents when they come to the border should never be a part of American policy. On behalf of the human services sector, representing more than five million staff and volunteers, we call on the Trump Administration to immediately stop this wrong and immoral policy, that has resulted in more than 2000 children being needlessly separated from their parents while their parents are being processed at our borders.

Furthermore, we call on the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to take immediate steps to restore connections between the infants, toddlers and teens who are currently in custody and their family members who are awaiting processing, including regular visitation and communication. The standards of care for these children must be equal to that expected in our current child welfare system, which at a minimum, should include access to a safe environment appropriate for families, age-appropriate services including education, trauma-informed mental and other health services, and family-based legal and immigration counseling.

We urge the Administration and Congress to immediately put into place the laws, processes and resources that will ensure the health, safety and well-being of children and not be harmful and traumatizing to them, and stand ready to work with them to implement such policies. We must ensure all of our actions are grounded in the humanitarian values we have long held as a nation.”

From the National Indian Child Welfare Association:

The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) calls on the Trump Administration to acknowledge that ending the policy of systematically separating children from families at the border is not over until every child is reunited with their parents and found safe and unharmed. This National Refugee Day, we recognize the parallel between children who are separated from their families at the border and American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Native communities know too well the devastating impact of trauma because of historical and contemporary policies, including the unnecessary removal of Native children from their families and communities, enacted by the U.S. and state governments. The president should recognize and seek to correct the short- and long-term problems that have already been caused by this inhumane policy.

From Youth Advocate Programs, a multi-state provider of community-based services:

Since Youth Advocate Programs’ founding in 1975 our sole mission has been to keep families together and at home in their communities with intensive support. We believe that institutions are no place for children and no place for families. We believe that every single person has strengths, gifts and basic human dignity. We believe we need a better solution going forward than detaining families together in tent cities, shelters, detention centers or worse.

We are rooted in American communities in 22 states and Washington, DC, and have a sister program in Guatemala, where our staff and colleagues have seen and continue to see the violence and threats that motivate families to do anything and everything to keep their children safe.

The most effective American solutions will include community-based support for organizations on the ground in Guatemala and other countries from where people are fleeing, and for the people here, awaiting their court proceedings.

Families belong together. We do not need to build or invest in new institutions in any sector of our country, whether it be child welfare, juvenile justice, behavioral health or immigration to make that happen.

From Vital Voices, a global women’s empowerment organization:

Since President Trump signed an executive order earlier this week to stop separating children from their parents, confusion has reigned along the border.

According to HHS, close to 30 percent of unaccompanied minors who have entered the U.S. have been girls. But where are they? Girls haven’t been shown in the photos of shelters where migrant children are being kept. And almost no information has been given about where girls are being sent after they are separated from their parents and put into HHS custody.

Vital Voices calls for the administration to immediately release information on the location and conditions of the young girls now in custody.

The executive order also did not address the uncertainty of how the nearly 2,500 children already in federal custody will be reunited with their families or how long undocumented families will now be detained together.

Vital Voices is calling for an end to family detention, decrying the psychological damage and trauma to mothers, children and families. Women are so often victims in times of crisis. A longtime partner of Vital Voices Human Rights programming, Bill Bernstein of Mosaic Services, has been working on the frontlines of this crisis and has seen the fear firsthand:

There is a reason women are fleeing their native lands with their families: they are coming to America to find refuge from rampant domestic and sexual violence, and threats by drug cartels. If they return to their country, they would either be killed, subjected to sexual assault, or forced to carry drugs.

Vital Voices believes what is needed is a comprehensive plan to reunify all parents and children who have been separated. Preserving the safety and dignity of women trying to protect their children is fundamental to a thoughtful, enlightened democracy.

The National Foster Parent Association has actually called for a convening of a White House Summit on ending childhood trauma caused by the separation of families.


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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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