The Trump administration’s policies toward immigrant families have renewed public debate about the perils of family separation. Separating children from their families is not a new phenomenon. When the separation policy was enacted in the summer, Secretary for Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen compared the separation of immigrant children from their parents to the separation of children from incarcerated parents.
That comparison, rather than a justification for family separation, should draw our attention to the unjust ways children are taken from their families every day in the United States. Poor families, families of color and adults with disabilities are at particular risk of losing custody of their children. Parents struggling with addiction face a race against time to recover and prove their sobriety before their parental rights are terminated.
Why? Because our child welfare system adopted an approach that pits children’s rights against parental rights, leading to swift removal and a push for termination of parental rights. Over the past 40 years, growing surveillance of poor and minority communities by child welfare agencies has led to an increase in the removal of children from their homes. Rather than providing struggling families with the resources they need to make both parents and children’s lives safer, family separation is all too often the penalty parents pay for poverty, addiction or disability.
In the 1970s, growing attention focused on preventing child abuse and maltreatment. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) set federal standards for the reporting of suspicions of child abuse. CAPTA broadly defined child abuse, spanning physical and sexual abuse but also ambiguous terms such as emotional neglect.
States developed their own local policies to increase the identification of child victims. These programs invariably focused on increasing the reporting of child abuse, using tools such as hotlines. Public service announcements blasted out statistics of tens of thousands of children being abused. In Florida, a radio ad tallied that in 1973, over “19,000 children were beaten, battered, burned, raped, starved, tortured, neglected and murdered.”
While perhaps technically accurate, as the word “neglect” included a broad spectrum of behaviors, such announcements grossly overemphasized the prevalence of physical abuse. In fact, a significant proportion of the reports of child mistreatment in Florida at the time dealt with malnutrition; children were going hungry primarily because their parents were poor.
Yet as states encouraged people to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect, little or no money was appropriated for funding services to help struggling families. A child-abuse allegation would lead to an investigation, but would not necessarily lead to the provision of services.
Furthermore, as foster care enjoyed federal funding, states were often incentivized to use foster care as a form of poverty intervention. In the first half of the 20th century, parents voluntarily sought out foster care for their children for a host of temporary reasons, including parental illness, as a short-term solution until children could return home. By the 1970s, foster care was transformed into a coercive intervention disproportionately targeting poor and minority families, leading child-care advocates to argue that foster care had become the “primary form of child welfare service to poor Black and Hispanic families.”
In the absence of a safety network to provide, food, shelter, medical care and basic necessities to struggling families, removing children from their homes might seem to benefit poor children. But such a policy had consequences. As the number of children in foster care steadily grew, policymakers grew frustrated by poignant images of children “languishing” (the word lawmakers most often chose to use) in foster homes and shuffled between different placements.
Amid this growing critique of child separation, the pursuit of “permanency” became the leading policy goal for the child-welfare system. The 1980 Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act had two main goals: to keep more children in their homes by means of the provision of services, and to facilitate adoption of those children who could not stay in their homes.
Unfortunately, many attempts at family preservation were underfunded, unproven, eclectic and no more likely to prevent family separation than traditional case management. These haphazard attempts to translate a policy goal into an effective intervention provided ammunition for detractors to argue that family preservation was useless at best, and dangerous at worst. This was a case in which doing policy poorly was likely to be worse than not attempting it at all, as prominent child advocates argued that family preservation had been tried and failed.
Horrific stories of children injured or even killed when kept in unsafe homes set the stage for a major shift: the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). If earlier attempts to reduce the number of children in foster care focused on removing fewer children, the ASFA promised to obtain the same goal by shortening the timeline of adopting children from foster care.
Yet this short timeline creates a policy that enhances permanent family separation. And it discounts the larger community to which the child belongs, as well as medical consensus about the reality of addiction, a chronic and often relapsing disease.
ASFA pushes for a quick adoption rather than providing struggling families resources they need, such as housing assistance, employment opportunities or evidence-based treatment options for addiction. And there is little proof that children are safer. As children who are adopted are no longer under the supervision of child welfare services, there is no data whether these adoptions are successful. Adoption cannot be the solution to the social problems our underfunded child-welfare system confronts.
As family separations capture the headlines, it is time to rethink our child welfare approach. In the 21st century, it is untenable that parents lose custody of their children because of their immigration status. It is equally unacceptable that they lose their child for reasons of poverty, illness or material need.