Friday, June 22, 2018

Reuniting Families and Fostering Immigrant Children

I expressed my concerns over migrant children being separated from their parents at the U.S. border in my last post, but I guess I'm not done because I have a few more concerns:

Concern #1: How are all of the children who have been separated from their parents going to be reunited with them?

June 20th's Executive Order will put a stop to separating families at the border but how will all of the families who have been separated be "put back together"?  It is my understanding that the U.S. government does not have any concrete plans to reunite these families.  However, I was pleased to learn that some businesses are taking a stand to prevent further separations:

-United Airlines, American Airlines, and Frontier Airlines are refusing to transport babies and children ripped from their parents; you can read about it HERE

It's refreshing to hear about businesses, organizations, and people making proactive efforts to reunite families, especially when there is so much heartache and debate surrounding this issue.  Maybe I need to take a break from watching the news or getting on social media- which leads me to my next concern:

Concern #2- Can we please stop politicizing children and come together regardless of our political party affiliation or loyalties and seek solutions for these children? 

I see the wisdom in Governor John Kasish's recent statement when he said, "This is a humanitarian crisis, so let's put politics aside, bring everyone to the table, and craft a real way forward."

I am not only concerned, but disturbed when people are more concerned about proving which administration's policy "created" the problem in the first place, rather than coming together to create solutions for these displaced children.  I think a good question for anybody who feels passionately about this crisis, including myself, should ask themselves is, "Where is my passion/anger/outrage coming from?  Am I more concerned about proving that I'm "right" or am I actively seeking solutions for displaced children or secure borders? (or whatever your biggest personal concern happens to be.)  

Perhaps I'm too idealistic or moderate, but I, for one, don't believe it's simply a dichotomy of "safe borders" versus "humane treatment for immigrants".  Both are valid concerns and not mutually exclusive.  Historically, administrations from both major U.S. political parties have enacted legislation to solve these problems.  Sometimes the legislation has been effective and other times it has created unintended consequences and more problems.

Some examples of major immigration legislation include the Flores Settlement Law, signed by Bill Clinton in 1997, which required unaccompanied minors who arrive in the U.S. to be released to their parents, a legal guardian, or an adult relative.  If there are no relatives available then a government agency appoints an appropriate adult to look after the child.  Although that particular legislation related to unaccompanied minors (versus minors traveling with family) such legislation focused on "family first".

In 2008 George Bush signed an anti-trafficking statute, The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection, which required unaccompanied minors to be transferred out of immigration centers within 72 hours.  The purpose of this bill was to protect immigrant children being brought over to the United States by sex traffickers and to provide such children a full immigration hearing (to decide if the child qualified for asylum or not).  As worthy and needful as this legislation was, it actually backfired and caused an increase in unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America (notably Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador where poverty and gang violence and crime are rampant).  This is because immigration cases are so backlogged that it could take years for a case to be heard.  In the meantime, these minors would be in limbo in the U.S.  

Fast forward to 2014 when Barack Obama tried to keep families together who crossed the border illegally into special "family detention centers".  This was a worthwhile goal but the unintended consequence was that it violated the policy of keeping children out of jail-like settings (even if they are with their parents).  A federal judge made the ruling and as a consequence, families were released into the United States pending notification of their immigration hearings.   This began the immigration policy sometimes referred to as "Catch and Release."

I use these examples to show that if one asks the question "Whose fault is this- the Republicans or  the Democrats?" you will not get a simple answer.  It's much more multi-faceted.  Both parties, under different administrations, have tried their best to deal with immigration and detention issues.  My hope is that policy makers can look into bipartisan and evidence-based practices in an attempt to discover what has worked and what has backfired and what policies or legislation will cause the least harm to children and families.

Concern #3- Reunification of displaced children and their families should take priority over adoption.

 The catchphrase and hashtag for advocates of not separating families at the U.S border is "Families Belong Together."

I am pro-family reunification IF it is in the child's best interest.  I am also pro-adoption provided it is done ethically.*

I've heard comments and concerns from those both within and outside of the foster and adoption community about how to go about fostering or possibly adopting an undocumented child (with parents or unaccompanied).  I have inserted myself into at least one of these conversations with the same information I shared back in this post:

 Which leads me to the question of:  What happens to children who are separated from their families at the border?

If I'm understanding the process correctly, These children are placed into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who then turns them over to their Office of Refugee Resettlement whose job is to place " unaccompanied alien children" in the "least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child." while the parents of the children await prosecution of federal misdemeanor charges or until they can be united with a relative or placed in a foster home.  ORR has shelters throughout the United States which are run by non-profit organizations.  
  Each state has different ways of handling things but in my state the largest agency which places refugee children into foster care does so only after an extensive search for relatives has taken place- which could take years.  Because of this, most of the children available for placement are older rather than the babies and toddlers currently detained in "Tender Age Shelters"

  I'm aware of other agencies in states like Michigan, Texas, and California who place children in more of an emergency foster placement until family can be located.  And for any who are looking into fostering an unaccompanied alien child (I'm not a fan of the term "alien" but that's the legal term), here is a snippet of FAQ page from ORR:

Concerning ethical adoption practices and displaced children, I couldn't agree more with this statement made today from Chuck Johnson, CEO of National Council for Adoption, concerning Children Being Held at the Border:

"Children who are unaccompanied or have been separated from their parents or guardians at the U.S. border are not—nor should they be considered—candidates for adoption by American citizens. This is consistent with National Council For Adoption’s long-held position regarding the adoption of children in times of crisis, such as war, earthquakes, and other catastrophic natural or man-made disasters in which children are separated from their families.
"Adoption is only a possibility for children for whom parental rights have been terminated or for whom there is clear evidence that they are orphaned. Based on NCFA’s understanding of the status of these 2,000+ children, few, if any, meet these criteria. For those who would be eligible for adoption, there are a number of options that could provide them with permanent, family-based care. NCFA has always supported a continuum of child welfare outcomes that prioritizes (in order) family preservation, adoption by relatives, and domestic adoption in a child’s native country all before intercountry adoption options are considered. It is paramount that the identities of these children be clearly ascertained and who and where their parents are is verified.
"Our hearts are with these children and we hope that those involved in determining their futures will act with integrity, care, and compassion."
If YOU have experience advocating for or working with agencies that foster children from other countries please leave a comment or message me so that I can learn more as we seek for solutions for these vulnerable children!

 * In the event that anybody wants to leave a nasty comment or send me hate mail, save us both some time and read this first:

 I know there are anti-adoption/family preservation AT ALL COSTS critics who could make the argument, "But you've adopted- your kids didn't get to stay with their first families!"  To which I would reply, "Yes- I have adopted.  The birth mother of our oldest child went through an agency through her own free will and placed her child for adoption because it was important to her that her baby be raised in a family with a mom and a dad (among other things).  It was important to us that the agency we went through provided counseling to expectant parents considering adoption both pre- and post-placement.   

Our younger children were adopted through the foster care system after their mother relinquished her parental rights a year and a half after they were placed in our care.  During that year in a half they were in our care as foster children we supported the plan for reunification with their family and both biological parents were given more than one chance, with services provided, to get their children returned to their custody.
In addition to the children we have adopted who are no longer with their first families, we have been a resource to many other families (the majority of our foster children) in caring for their children while they work to get them back.

"Suffer the Children to come unto Me . . . Unless"

Some of the most heartbreaking experiences I have had as a foster parent are trying to comfort a newly placed foster child in my home as they cry out for their parents.  Nighttime is invariably the hardest time and intensifies the anxiety, confusion, grief, and trauma that these children experience as a result of being separated from their families through no fault of their own. 

If the child is old enough to ask “Why can’t I be with my parents?” or “When do I get to see mommy?” I can usually offer up a sufficient explanation since most of the children get to see their family at least once a week at supervised visits.  If the child's parent is in prison or jail or doesn’t show up to their scheduled visits, then it makes it much harder for me to offer up an explanation or appease the child.  In the case of babies and toddlers who aren’t verbal but are obviously distressed, sometimes all I can do is hold them as they cry, try to provide comfort, and just be with them in their grief.

I’ve observed that a common justification of Trump’s new Zero Tolerance Policy which has separated over 2,000 children from their families at the border since May 1, 2018 has been “Parents in the U.S. break the law every day and they get sent to jail.  Their kids go to family or are placed in foster care!” 

I have issues with this statement for a couple of reasons.  These are my concerns:

First, seeking asylum is not breaking the law, under 8 US 1158 Code.

   In order to apply for asylum through the United States Citizen and Immigration Services, you have to cross into the U.S. and THEN present yourself to an authority and start the application process.  Under the new Zero Tolerance Policy* children are separated from their family as their parents await their asylum hearing. 

Do some people cross our border and falsely apply for asylum even if they don’t meet the qualifications?  Certainly, but that’s precisely what immigration judges and hearings are for. 

I value keeping the law and keeping our borders secure, but under this new policy, asylum protections no longer exist for individuals fleeing their country (namely women and children) from domestic abuse or rampant gang violence EVEN IF they come to the U.S, at a legal entry point .   

Consider the words of a friend of a friend who does pro-bono asylum work as an attorney in Texas:  “There is not practically a legal route to come to immigration from many Central and South American countries.  The wait for unskilled persons from those countries is over 100 years long in some cases, so there is not, practically speaking, a way to immigrate legally.  Many of these immigrants being separated from their children are asylum seekers.  The legal process for seeking asylum in the US is that you show up here and then you apply, NOT application first and then immigration.  These immigrants are legal asylum seekers and they are being separated from their children while there asylum applications are processed, which can take years.  These people’s stories are devastatingly heartbreaking.  Rape.  Murder.  Gang and drug violence.  These people are risking everything to give their children a chance.”

Second,  My rebuttal to the “Parents in the U.S. break the law every day and they get sent to jail.  Their kids go to family or are sent to foster care!” argument is "Precisely- their kids go to family or are placed in foster care, they are NOT separated from their parents and sent to detention warehouses or tent cities."

As a foster parent and graduate student of social work, I am much more familiar with U.S. Child Welfare Policy than U.S. Immigration Law.  I’ve seen firsthand that even when a child is in a safe and loving foster home it is still traumatic for them to be separated from their parents.  The abundant research shows that kids do better psychologically and physically in the least restrictive, most “home-like” environment rather than an institution (and preferably with kin, if possible).  

          As for incarcerated parents, at least they can be kept abreast of where their children are and how they are doing.  If their child is placed in foster care and not in the care of relatives, they have the resources of caseworkers or legal counsel to give them updates about their children.  Even if they can’t afford a lawyer they can consult with a public defender about their rights and have due process in court hearings.

Third, children being separated from their parents under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE is of concern!

 Whether children are separated from their parents as a result of their parents fleeing the country and seeking asylum or illegally crossing the border or even being incarcerated or homeless, the children who are left behind deserve our compassion.  Period.    

Just as no child has a choice as to if they’re born into poverty or wealth, children are not responsible for the choices their parents make.  Unless it’s not in the best interest of a child, families deserve to be together.   Foster care is set up to reunify families and give them another chance to be together.   

As a foster parent it is not my job to make judgments about the parents of the children in my care (though it’s been a temptation I've succumbed to at times) but, rather, to love and care for these children as if they were my own until they can return to the care of their parents, if possible.  

When we got a call about a prospective placement we don’t base our willingness to care for the child based on if the parents have a clean background- in fact, the majority of the children who are placed in our home have come into state custody precisely because their parents need some extra help and resources and they don’t have a clean criminal record (most often because of drug charges and domestic violence issues).

   Children need to be cared for and nurtured regardless of their parent’s citizenship status or criminal record.   Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come to me”  NOT “Suffer the children to come to me unless their parents have tried to cross the border illegally or only if their parents have documented citizenship or can provide for them or have spotless background checks, etc.”

Fourth, when a child is separated from their parents they can suffer both short-term and long-term effects which can alter their brain chemistry and potentially their ability to form healthy attachments later in life.

I don't have the time here to recount attachment studies or go into the details of how the brain and limbic system respond to trauma, but many parents who have adopted or cared for children coming from "hard places"- environments of abuse and neglect or institutions and orphanages- deal with the very real repercussions sometimes on a daily basis, as do the teachers, social workers, therapists, or medical professionals who work closely with these children and their parents.

  If anybody thinks that separating a child from their parents is "no big deal" because it happens all the time, I think you would feel much differently after doing everything in your power to try and comfort a crying child in the middle of the night when they've been removed from their family.  

*U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY BACKGROUND/CLARIFICATION- I am sharing these facts and sources courtesy of Michelle Martin who is a PhD and policy specialist from Cal State Fullerton: 

-The policy to separate parents and children is new and was instituted on 4/6/2018.  It was the brainchild of John Kelly and Stephen Miller to serve as a deterrent for undocumented immigration, approved by Trump, and adopted by A.G. Sessions.  Prior administrations detained migrant families, but didn’t have a practice of forcibly separating parents from their children unless the adults were deemed unfit.

- In 1996, President Clinton passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made unauthorized entry into the US a crime (typically a misdemeanor for first-time offenders) but under both Republicans and Democrats, these cases were handled through civil deportation proceedings, NOT criminal proceeding, WHICH DID NOT REQUIRE SEPARATION.  And again, even in cases where detainment was required, FAMILIES WERE ALWAYS KEPT TOGETHER IN FAMILY RESIDENTIAL CENTERS UNLESS the parents were deemed unfit.