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Excerpt from Practice Perspectives (Spring 2014)
Below is an excerpt from a recent "Practice Perspectives" article. NASW Members can view the full .pdf article by clicking here, or by visiting the National NASW website here. Not a member? Join NASW

Caught in the Middle: Supporting Families Involved with Immigration and Child Welfare Systems

Roxana Torrico Meruvia, MSW
NASW-DC Senior Practice Associate


In the last decade, the U.S. immigrant population has dramatically increased. In 2011, there were an estimated 40 million immigrants in the U.S.; 11 million of these individuals were undocumented (Pew Research Center, 2013). Children living in immigrant families now represent the fastest growing segment of the child population. In fact, it is estimated that one in four children and youth have an immigrant parent or are immigrants themselves (Capps & Passel, 2004; Torrico, 2010; NASW, 2013). It has also been reported that as many as 5.5 million children are part of a mixed status family (Passel & Cohn, 2009) [See Key Terminology ]. Unfortunately, due to immigration enforcement, many of these children are at risk of being separated from a parent at any time. While federal laws and policies that impact immigrants’ status have evolved as a result of the political, social and economic climate (Morgan & Polowy, 2010), the failure to reform outdated immigration laws and policies continues to have devastating and unintended outcomes on children and their families.

In 2011, approximately 3 92,000 individuals were deported from the United States (U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2011). The Department of Homeland Security reported that over 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported in just over two years, accounting for nearly 23 percent of all deportations in that period (Wessler, 2012). Sadly, many of these parents left their children behind. There are an estimated 5 ,100 children in child welfare systems across the U.S. as the result of a parent’s immigration detention or deportation (Wessler, 2011). In addition, it is estimated that 15,000 more children and youth are at risk of entering the child welfare system over the next several years (Wessler, 2011). To date, hundreds of thousands of U.S. born children have already left the U.S. with their deported parents (Children’ s Defense Fund, n.d.; Kline, 2013).

Challenges Facing Children and Families Involved with Child Welfare

There are a number of ways that an immigrant child or family can become involved with the child welfare system. In some instances, involvement is a result of immigration enforcement. For example, a parent may not be provided with the opportunity to make child care arrangements at the time of apprehension or in other cases, a child may come into state custody as a result of a parent’s criminal arrest or conviction- which can eventually lead to their deportation. However, in other more common scenarios, a child may already be system-involved, and then a parent’s subsequent detention or deportation interrupts the family reunification process.

When a detained or deported parent is unable to make childcare arrangements for their children, these children may be left in unstable and risky situations (First Focus, 2013). The abrupt separation of families resulting from immigration enforcement can also have profound and negative impact on a child’s mental and physical health and academic performance. This is particularly true in cases where the child actually witnessed his or her parent’ s arrest (Cervantes & Lincroft, 2010). In two-parent households, the deportation of a parent can also lead the family to experience higher rates of poverty and reduced access to food (Satinsky, Hu, Heller & Farhang, 2013). All of these outcomes put children at higher risk of entering the child welfare system.

Too often, the acts of detention and deportation put children, both documented and undocumented, in danger of being permanently separated from their families. According to the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA), if a child has been out of a parent’s custody for 15 of the last 22 months, the child welfare department must petition the court for the termination of parental rights. Therefore, unless children are placed in a permanent guardianship arrangement or another legal custody arrangement with the other parent, parental rights may be terminated and children can be put up for adoption (Wessler, 2011). Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions family members who could serve as potential placement options are not considered solely because of their undocumented status, leaving children lingering in the foster care system.

Once parents have been detained or deported, it is difficult for them to participate in child welfare proceedings. A parent’s ability to navigate the immigration and child welfare systems is compromised by conflicting laws and lack of coordination between the systems. These systemic challenges can negatively impact their ability to meet the requirements of their child welfare case plan and within the specified time constraints. Detained parents typically do not have access to the services (e.g., parenting class, psychological evaluations, regular visitation, etc.) often identified in case plans putting them in a difficult position to reunify with their children. In some instances, parents may never receive notification of child welfare proceedings because the child welfare system does not know how to locate them or if they do become aware, their participation (in person or virtually) has not been supported by detention facilities. While immigration status is not a reason for the termination of parental rights (Butera, 2010), unless detained or deported immigrant parents are provided with the supports to fully participate in child welfare proceedings, there is a risk of a permanent separation of families causing irreparable harm to children.

In an effort to reduce harm to immigrant children and families, several state and local agencies have taken steps to establish internal polices or in some cases, dedicated units to address issues related to immigration. However, California is the first in the country to address family separation matters resulting from the current immigration enforcement system in its “Reuniting Immigrant Families Act” (SB 1 064) (Lincroft, 2013). This law authorizes child welfare courts to extend the family reunification timeline so that child welfare agencies can conduct a thorough search for detained or deported parents or relatives; ensures that the immigration status of relatives is not considered reason not to place a child in their home; and allows the use of foreign documents (e.g., passports) to conduct background checks for relative caregivers. Lastly, this law requires the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) to provide social workers with guidance to explore potential immigration relief options for children and parents; and provide guidance to local agencies to establish agreements with relevant foreign consulates to facilitate family reunification in child custody cases (American Immigration Council, 2012).


Social Work Action Steps

Social workers face a range of obstacles in meeting the unique needs of immigrant families. Though not all are experts on immigration issues, social workers can take some of the following steps to familiarize themselves with relevant terminology, relief options and resources while also adhering to ethical social work practice which prohibits discrimination based on immigration status (NASW, 2008).

Contact an immigration specialist. Social workers can build professional working relationships with local immigration service providers to ensure they understand the range of immigration relief options available as well as recent changes to immigration policies.

Understand the range of immigration status. There are a range of immigration status which immigrant children, youth and parents may hold. These could include legal permanent residents, naturalized citizens, refugees or undocumented persons. Each category or status can carry different legal rights and access to services. Determining each family member’s immigration status early can help to determine each person’s eligibility for services. For example, a parent can receive benefits for their U.S. born children regardless of their own immigration status. [See Key Terminology ].

Assess for immigration relief options. Some children, youth and families involved with the child welfare system do not have a legal immigration status, making it challenging for them to access resources or services. Initially, social workers may be the only individuals available to identify potential relief options and connect them to an immigration specialist. For example, immigrant children who are ultimately unable to reunify with their families and remain in state custody are eligible for the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS); however, this process needs to be completed before they transition out of foster care. Working with an immigration specialist is critical to completing the necessary paperwork to obtain a legal status within appropriate timelines. [See Potential Immigration Relief Options ].

Contact ICE to help locate parent(s) and to ensure that his or her rights are protected. ICE has several resources that parents, family members and social workers can access.

  • Online Detainee Locator System. Social workers who are trying to locate a detained parent can use the Online Detainee Locator System. In an effort to conduct an effective search, social workers should have the following information: parent’s full name, date of birth, country of birth or Alien Registration number. Please note the information in the database is for current detainees or those released within the last 60 days. If the name of the parent is not on the database, contact ICE directly for more information.

  • Detention Facilities Locator. Social workers can also contact the ICE detention facilities directly when trying to locate a parent.

  • ERO Community Field Liaisons. ICE’s Enforcement Removal Operations (ERO) is committed to resolving concerns and addressing questions regarding ICE practices, policies and/or programs. Social workers who are in contact with parents can obtain the Field Liaison contact information and encourage parents to connect with them as soon as possible.

  • ICE Community and Detainee Helpline. If a detained parent does not receive an appropriate or timely response from the Field Liaison, social workers can contact the ICE Community and Detainee Helpline to report concerns or request assistance regarding the parental interests of a detained immigrant.

Locate Family Members to Care for Children. Family connections are critical for children. In addition to locating detained or deported parents, social workers can try to locate the other parent and/or other family members to serve as a kinship placement or a permanent connection to the child. Social workers can gather information such as full names, last known address, type of work they did, date of birth, etc. to help in the search of a parent or family member. Undocumented status of family members should not be a factor in identifying a potential placement with kin. If family members are undocumented, alternative forms of identification such as passports can be used to obtain a background check and Foreign Consulate Identification Cards and Individual Tax Identification Numbers (ITIN) can be used for foster care payments (if applicable).

  • Contact International Social Service United States of America Branch, Inc. (ISS-USA), an organization who can connect children and families that are separated by international borders to services and supports to ensure they are part of the permanency planning process. Some of their services include criminal background checks, document tracing, home studies for kin or adoption placements and post-placement follow ups.

Collaborate with Foreign Consulates. Social workers should first determine if their agency has an agreement with the Consulate from the parent or child’s birth country. If there are no formal relationships in place, social workers can contact the Consulate directly to notify them that the parent and child are involved with child welfare. [See Foreign Consulates ].

Make parents aware of Parental Interests Directive. Social workers in contact with parents can help them understand how ICE can support them under the Parental Interests Directive. This Directive intends to support parents in maintaining relationships with their children and making decisions in their best interest. [See Parental Interests Directive]...

End of Excerpt - READ THE FULL ARTICLE  (.PDF) 

Full article includes...

  • Challenges Facing Child Welfare
  • Ways to Bridge the Gap: Working Together to Minimize Harm to Children
  • Foreign Consulates
  • Conclusion
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