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Position Statement: Migrant Children Belong with their Families. Stop the Inhumane Treatment of Children at the Border

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Voice for Adoption (VFA) advocates on behalf of the over 123,000 children in foster care who are waiting for adoption, and the families who adopt them.

Today, we speak out against the public policies and practices that contribute to immigrant, asylum-seeking children being separated from their families and being placed in detention centers that are unfit to adequately care for their safety, permanency, and well-being.

We also sound the alarm on the risk that—unless we make a concerted effort to reunify the children with their families—many may become permanently separated, their fates under extreme risk. Under no circumstances should children separated at the border be placed in our public or private adoption systems. Any attempt to do so is essentially state authorized sale and trafficking of children. They should be kept with their parents and, if that isn’t possible, should be connected to relatives as quickly as possible.

We speak as advocates for children throughout the country who are waiting for adoptive families, specialists in foster care and adoption policy, and members of the broader child welfare community. We urge policy makers across the political spectrum to ensure that the best interest of children is paramount when making public policy. The duty to care for children who are in our country extends regardless of the child’s citizenship or immigration status. Deliberately exposing children to the trauma of separation and inhumane living conditions as part of our nation’s immigration policies violates the most fundamental values of our country.

In early 2018, Congress and the White House passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, a landmark, bipartisan law that promised to profoundly reform the care states and the federal government provide the children and families involved in the child welfare system. Most importantly, the legislation aimed to both prevent children from entering the child welfare system and reduce the number of children from entering foster care altogether.  At the heart of the Family First Prevention Services Act is the desire to preserve the integrity of a family, and only remove a child from their family when it is absolutely necessary. For decades, federal law has required that, if a child must be removed to protect their safety and well-being, they must be placed in the most family-like care setting possible. And the law also requires, with few exceptions, that efforts must be made to reunify children with their original families without compromising their safety, permanency, or well-being.  

Families First Prevention Service Act also directed states to dramatically reduce the use of institutional placements for children. We know that those settings, when used without specific, time-limited treatment objectives cause damage to children.

This movement away from family separation in our child welfare policy was guided by decades of social science and psychological research showing that family separation itself causes significant harm to children. Children who are separated from their families have an increased risk of suffering from physical and mental health problems, attachment challenges, decreased self-esteem, and other ailments. For many children, the impact of trauma lasts a lifetime.

Separating a child from their parents is considered a toxic stressor, which can have a significantly negative impact on the child’s brain development and change the child’s brain structure. Exposure to such stressors increases a child’s risk of suffering from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other negative health outcomes. The government policy of separating children from their parents must cease.

 

VFA believes that the very same lessons learned from research that guided reform to our public child welfare system should guide the policies in place for other public systems that have a responsibility to care for children, including our immigration system.  VFA believes it is absolutely unconscionable for the U.S. government to place in institutional care the children of parents who are fit and willing to care for them. These children must be kept with their parents as the best and first option. If they are separated, they should be assigned legal representation, and family finding strategies used in the public child welfare system should be broadened and extended to countries of origin to locate their parents and other relatives. The most immediate action we must take while working to reunify these families is to dramatically improve the quality of care we’re giving to immigrant and asylum-seeking children already in our care.

Recent reports have detailed the horrific conditions in which children under the care of our immigration system are being held. These children need to be protected from abuse and neglect at immigration detention centers, and employees who work with them must undergo the appropriate background checks and be trained in caring for children who have experienced trauma.

It is not legal in any circumstance to abuse or neglect a child—whether the abuser is a parent, caregiver, or the U.S. government. Withholding food, beds, or hygiene products, sexually assaulting, violently attacking, inhumanely restraining, and extreme isolation are only some of the reports coming from inside the detention centers. Any reports of maltreatment need to be investigated and, if found guilty, the perpetrators—including employees of the U.S. government—need to be held accountable for their violations of law and human rights.

It horrifies us at VFA to think that any child in the care of any U.S. Agency would be subjected to this treatment while in our country’s care. These children need food, water, clothing, beds, and other necessities. They need access to both physical and mental health services. They need to be able to play, participate in recreation, learn, and discover — all things that are essential to healthy child and adolescent development.

Voice for Adoption, our board of directors, and our members call on policy makers and national leaders to end the state-sanctioned abuse and neglect of children and families at the border. We call on our government, leaders, other child welfare organizations, and individuals from across the country to sound the alarms about this crisis. We must work to correct the unconscionable treatment of children and families. We must demand a stop to child separation. When separations do happen, we must make every effort possible to reunify the children with their families and to provide the necessary treatment to help them recover from the trauma that has been inflicted upon them.

Lastly, we call on Congress to investigate and do everything in its power to both learn how and why this is happening and take action to ensure that policy and practice are aligned to guarantee to the American people, and the world, that this will stop and will not happen again.