Too many families who are immigrating to the US—particularly those from Central America—have been or are separated when they reach the US border. Some children and teens reach the border alone without parents. The US government has struggled with how to respond to immigrating families and unaccompanied children, and has recently caused significant harm in its responses. Far too many parents and children have been separated, with children detained in inhumane conditions as they reel from the impact of separation from their parents. Although the issue is not as large in Canada, these same separations have happened.
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 children 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 facilities housing these children are most often unequipped, ill-equipped, or unwilling to provide the supportive services to help address the children’s trauma.
Separating these children and families not only harms then but also creates an undue burden on the foster care system. By removing children from their families inappropriately and unjustly, the government potentially places the weight of thousands more children on this already struggling system.
NACAC strongly opposes the separation of parents and children and detention of children in families who are migrating to this country. We must put the best interests of children first and ensure that they are spared additional trauma as they enter the US or Canada.
Policy and Practice Recommendations
- The US and Canadian governments must embrace policies and practices that put children’s best interests first and follows the same principles that govern the child welfare system—including family preservation as long as it is safe for the children to do so, reunifying families as quickly as possible if separation has occurred, and placing children with relatives or fictive kin if they cannot or until they can be reunified with their birth parents. Family-finding strategies should be employed to find their relatives or other adults with whom they have connections.
- Any child placements away from parents must be in the most family-like setting possible and the children’s basic and regular needs must be met including food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical and mental health needs. Whenever possible, the child’s caregivers must be able to speak the same language as the child and to meet their other cultural needs.
- When children are separated from their birth parents, the children should receive free legal representation and translation services to ensure an informed advocate is working to protect the children’s best interests.
- When children are separated from their parents, any caregivers or staff caring for the children must have thorough background checks and receive training on trauma and separation and loss.
- NACAC urges the US and Canadian governments to dedicate their efforts to advancing policies that safeguard the health, safety, and best interests of children and their families. In the US this includes robust, good-faith compliance with the Flores Settlement Agreement.
- Any children separated from their parents or detained should receive immediate and ongoing trauma-informed mental health services to address any issues they are facing.
- Any reports of maltreatment need to be investigated and the perpetrators—including employees or contractors of the US or Canadian government—need to be held accountable for their violations of human rights.
- Adoption agencies should not participate in any efforts to place these children for adoption unless and until it is definitively shown that their birth parents and other relatives—whether in the US, Canada, or elsewhere—are unable to care for them. All attention must be focused on family preservation, family reunification, and placement with relatives.