Child welfare agencies in the U.S. make tough decisions daily to separate children from their parents, but they have options for minimizing the trauma that aren't being used in the family separations at the Mexican border
The sights and sounds are wrenching: A boy’s cries of “Papa! Papa!” for the father he had been separated from. Youngsters placed in chain-link cages in an old Texas warehouse. Parents begging to know what will happen to their children.
Child welfare has always been a challenging profession; state and local agencies across America make difficult decisions every day to separate children from their parents. But those agencies have ways of minimizing the trauma that aren’t being employed by the Trump administration in separating immigrant families at the Mexican border.
“There are no principles of good child welfare that are being used in this process,” said Angelo McClain, CEO of the National Association of Social Workers.
Among other things, child welfare agencies often try to arrange visits between parents and children and keep communication open.
McClain and many of his professional colleagues nationwide are alarmed by what is happening at the border, citing research demonstrating that family separation can cause long-term trauma for children, including depression, anxiety, feelings of insecurity and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Their worries center on the more 2,300 children who have been separated from their parents this spring as part of a Trump administration effort to deter illegal border crossings. Federal officials have not specified how long the youngsters will be held.
McClain knows child welfare intimately. He spent five years in a foster-care group home in Texas as a teen, then went on to become a child abuse investigator in that state.
“After we removed children from their homes, I would visit them every day in their foster home,” he said. “I was the link back to their parents — I’d get messages back and forth. We had ways to mitigate the trauma.”
As soon as feasible, parent-child visits were arranged. And parents could offer advice to the children’s caregiver — their food preferences and bedtime rituals, for example.
The wave of family separations at the border, undertaken as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward those caught illegally trying to enter the country, is not facilitating any continued parent-child communication.
The best option is to keep a fragile family together in the first place, said Mike Arsham, a senior official at New York City’s child-welfare agency.
If that’s not possible — for example, when a single parent is jailed — the agency tries to find relatives who could care for the children until they are reunited with their parents.
“We give the child whatever reassurance we can that this separation will be as temporary as possible, without giving them false promises,” Arsham said. “They want to know if they can still have their circle of friends and their most treasured belongings.”
If there are no relatives available, the next option is to find a foster family willing to take the child, he said. Larger group facilities are generally considered the last resort.
The entire child-welfare system in the U.S. purports to be guided by the principle of “the best interests of the child.” Ashram, however, said it is clear to him that the family-separation policy at the border “is not primarily motivated by the well-being of the children.”
Oversight of the separated children is being handled by the Department of Health and Human Services, which has defended its operations.
Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, said younger children under HHS care are being placed in “permanent shelters” where they receive education, clothing, medical and mental health services, and recreational and entertainment opportunities.
“They’re under constant supervision and observation, so that we can address any health or medical concerns that arise while they’re in our care,” he said.
However, the separation policy was branded “wrong and immoral” in a joint statement Tuesday from 14 prominent charitable and social service organizations, including Catholic Charities USA, Girl Scouts of the USA, United Way Worldwide and the YWCA.
The groups called on HHS to restore connections between the children who are in custody and their family members who are awaiting processing by immigration authorities.
“The standards of care for these children must be equal to that expected in our current child welfare system,” the groups said.
Among the child welfare experts dismayed by the separations is Sandy Santana, executive director of Children’s Rights, a watchdog organization that has successfully sued numerous states to force improvements in their child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Under longstanding practice in the U.S., children should be removed from their home only if a parent is unfit or poses a danger to the child, Santana said. Neither of those circumstances seems prevalent in the wave of border separations, he said.
Under normal practice, Santana said, the goal of a child welfare agency should be to minimize harm to the child in cases where separation is deemed necessary.
“The trauma can have life-long consequences for these kids, so a good system tries to return the child to the parent as soon as possible when safety is not an issue,” he said.
Even a substandard agency would be expected to draw up a plan addressing foster children’s eventual reunification with their parents.
“The federal government has no plan for reuniting the children with their families,” Santana said. “It is deliberately inflicting trauma on children to punish their parents.”
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