Child Welfare Monitor has not yet addressed the current crisis of family separations at the border because it generally focuses on the child welfare systems run by the states and counties. But for a blog with child welfare in its name and a mission of supporting a child-centered policy, this omission is no longer tenable. Below we attempt to answer some frequently asked questions and provide links to further information.
What is the cause of the upsurge in family separations at the border? The separations resulted from a policy change by the Trump Administration. On May 7 Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the government would criminally prosecute anyone who crosses the border illegally, including those stating that they are seeking asylum. As explained in more detail by the New York Times and Vox.com, families that arrived here illegally were traditionally placed in immigration detention centers and brought before immigration courts. Sending parents to jail rather than immigration facilities requires the separation of parents from their children, who cannot be housed in jail with their parents.
How did the Trump Administration decide to separate children from their families? The New York Times discusses the evolution of the new policy in an article published on June 16. In an attempt to stem the flow of unauthorized arrivals, the Obama Administration vastly increased the detention of immigrant families, opening new facilities near the border where families were held while their cases were being considered. But courts ruled that children could not be detained indefinitely and would have to be released within strict time limits. In 2016 a court ruling held that this applied to families as well. As a result of this ruling, families were being released to await processing of their cases in a policy dubbed “catch and release” by the Trump Administration, which was determined to put an end to this policy. It considered but initially discarded the idea of separating children from their parents after remarks by John Kelly suggesting this policy touched off a swift backlash. But Trump advisor Stephen Miller never gave up on the idea. And when border crossings took a sharp upward turn in May, his boss agreed to give it a try.
How many children have been separated from their parents under the new policy implemented by the Trump Administration? The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported on June 15 that 1,995 minors have been separated from their families at the border between April 19 and May 31.
What happens to the children? After being separated from their parents, these children are being designated as unaccompanied minors and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. ORR’s child-caring system is overwhelmed. Its facilities were 95% full by June 7 mostly with children who arrived without their parents. A hastily-constructed “tent city” in the port of entry of Tornillo TX was housing 100 unaccompanied minors by June 15, only a day after the administration announced the location. Almost 200 unaccompanied children are being held in old warehouse in South Texas, confined in cages created by metal fencing, according to the Chicago Tribune. Reporters observed one cage holding 20 children. One advocate told reporters she met with a teenager who had been taking care of a traumatized four-year-old for three days. She also reported observing facility staff scold a group of five year olds for running around in their cage where there are no toys or books. The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics told Tribune reporters about observing a toddler in a 60-bed facility who had been taken from her mother the night before. She was crying uncontrollably and pounding her fists but the staff were not allowed to pick her up and comfort her.
The New York Times reported that the Administration on May 10 issued a call for proposals from “shelter care providers including group homes and transitional foster care” to accommodate an expected surge of separated children. One agency, Bethany Christian Services, is providing foster placements for about 100 migrant children in Massachusetts and Michigan and was planning to expand into other states in response to the proposal. The Times visited one of the children sent to Michigan, a five-year-old boy who was separated from his father after arriving in El Paso from Mexico late in May. The child was put on a flight to Michigan, and placed in a Bethany Christian Services foster home. The little boy came with a trash bag filled with dirty clothes and two sketches of his family. The first few nights he cried himself to sleep Then the crying turned to “just moaning and moaning” according to his foster mother. For the first two days the little boy would not shower or change his clothes. According to the article the little boy was sleeping with the sketches under his pillow and asking every day when he would see his father.
What is the age of the children who are being separated from their parents? A homeland security official told the New York Times that the administration had “drawn a bright line” against removing babies from their parents because the government cannot appropriately care for them. But the official would not provide a specific age below which children would not be separated from their parents. Bethany officials told the Times that the agency had taken charge of an 18-month-old girl who had been separated from her parents. A three-year-old boy taken from his mother at the border cried inconsolably all the way to Michigan and for the first few days at his foster home. He has now bonded with his foster mother ensuring another traumatic separation is in his future.
What is the impact on children of the new policy? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stated in a letter to the Administration that the fear and stress the children will experience due to the separations, in the absence of the significant adults in their lives, can harm their developing brains and their short and long-term health . “We ask you to put children first and not exacerbate their suffering by the additional trauma of being separated from their parents,” entreated the pediatricians.
The New York Times reports that even within the Trump Administration there is considerable unease about the policy of separating families at the border. Even the President recognizes the distasteful nature of the family separations, which is why he has falsely tried to blame it on Democrats. Child Welfare Monitor urges its readers to join the AAP, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Laura Bush, and other child advocates and people of conscience in telling the Administration to put an end to this cruel and inhumane policy that can have lifelong effects on the development of thousands of children.