When I was about three years old, I observed something that formed one of my earliest memories. Sitting outside of my mother’s family home in Calcutta at twilight, I saw a man on the street walking very fast with a toddler in his arms. I think it was a boy. A few steps behind them was a woman, running to keep up and begging, "please, please, don’t take my baby." The child stretched his arms in her direction, wailing. She was clearly the mother, but the man could have been father, uncle, landlord, pimp, anyone.
I’ve been thinking about that incident almost daily as we’ve prepared to release Shattered Families: the Perilous Intersection ofImmigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System, the first national research on kids who are stuck in child welfare systems because their parents have been detained or deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
I first learned about this issue in 2004 when my friend Tanya Krupat (who worked with the families of incarcerated women) introduced me to three girls who were in foster care while their mother served prison time. They were looking forward to being with her when her term ended, only to learn that instead of coming home to get them, she’d have to leave them behind when she was deported to the Dominican Republic. The institutions of child welfare, immigration and criminal justice had collided, and the result was separating these girls from their mother.
When we started looking into the question, many immigration advocates told us that it wasn’t happening, and there was no money whatsoever to work on it. So we did what we could, a story here, another there, until we finally got the resources to really investigate.
The basic situation is this: if someone has kids in the child welfare system, either prior to or because of ICE picking them up, they cannot do the things that are required to get their kids back. They can’t talk to their case workers, can’t visit their kids, can’t go to family court, can’t get social services. Eventually, the parent is deported and the kids either remain in foster care or are adopted out. A federal law requires states to pursue "termination of parental rights" if the parent has been absent for 15 out of 22 consecutive months, and some states move even faster. We have found that some 5,000 kids are in danger of never seeing their immigrant parents again.
Child welfare departments are supposed to do everything possible to help children stay in their own families, because we know from study after study that they’re better off there than in foster care. Children are to be permanently removed only if there is a very serious problem in the family that cannot be resolved with support and services. But ICE practices make it impossible for child welfare departments to do their job, and child welfare departments often exhibit a bias against reunifying kids with undocumented or deported family members. At the extreme, this situation winds up with the courts terminating parental rights and the kids never seeing their moms and dads again.
Although the mechanisms of this situation are unique to immigrants, losing kids to the system largely because of race and poverty are hardly new. Black communities have dealt with it for so long that Dorothy Roberts had to write the book Shattered Bonds about it, and last week NPR released a big investigation showing that Native American kids are more than half of all those in South Dakota’s foster care system, even though they’re only 15 percent of the total population.
Mothers, in particular, are faced with impossible choices in this set up. We recorded stories of domestic violence victims who are supposed to be protected from deportation under the Violence Against Women Ac. Instead, these women but arrested along with their abusers, thrown in detention, and then deported while their kids went into the system. If you’re such a woman and you report the abuse, you might be deported, since some law enforcement clearly didn’t get the VAWA memo. Or if you decide not to report because you wonder who will take care of your kids if you’re deported, then you can be charged with failure to protect the kids from an abuser. There’s no choice there, just a bunch of bad options that all separate you from your kids.
I’d like to thank key people without whom our research would not have been possible. Taryn Higashi, who gave us a travel grant before she left the Ford Foundation so that we could have a meeting. Kica Matos and Donna Lawrence at the Atlantic Philanthropies, who funded the current report. Our long time partners in the work: First Focus, Americans for Immigrant Justice, the Florence Immigration Project, the Women’s Refugee Commission, Families for Freedom, Bronx Defenders, and the Detention Watch Network.
The painful scene I watched in India stayed with me so intensely that I can easily recall it 40 years later. I couldn’t do anything then to help that woman keep her child. But we can all take action now to help other families stay together.
Two big things have to happen immediately. First, ICE must find alternatives to detention and put a hold on deportation until a family’s situation can be resolved. And child welfare departments need to stop the clock on parental rights so that immigrant moms and dads can have a fighting chance at keeping their kids. There’s a whole host of other recommendations in the report. Please read it, share it and send it to public officials, social workers, attorneys and everyone else who can make a difference.