The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency has now ended its policy of separating minors from their parents at the border; that’s a move that a majority of Americans — even those who want stronger border security — support.
That’s because Americans are seemingly united in the belief that there is an innate sanctity to the nuclear family; the bonds between parents and children cannot be replicated — and should only be severed in the most severe of circumstances.
While the outrage persists over family separations at the border, the government is still separating families here at home. More than 250,000 American children are removed from their homes and their parents each year by the child welfare system.
Some of these separations are truly necessary. But the grounds for removal are not always clear-cut. Of all American children within the foster care system, more than 70 percent were removed due to neglect.
In some cases a neglect finding may indicate substantial harm to a child, but more often it simply indicates underlying issues like poverty, substance abuse, or untreated mental illness. Symptoms associated with poverty, like inadequate housing or insufficient child care, are too often conflated with maltreatment.
In 2017, 10 percent of children were removed for inadequate housing, a number comparable or exceeding removal rates for physical or sexual abuse respectively. In fact, since 2009, removals based on inadequate housing having been steadily increasing.
According to Emma Ketteringham, managing director of the family defense practice at Bronx Defenders in New York, Child Protective Services (CPS) “has not been equipped to address the daily manifestations of economic and racial inequality. Instead, it is designed to treat structural failings as the personal flaws of low-income parents.”
And minority children are more often the victims of this overzealousness. The Director of Allegheny County’s Office of Data Analysis, Research and Evaluation in Pittsburgh, Pa., admitted the department’s case review process “definitely oversample the poor.” And nationally, African-American children are represented in foster care at 1.8 times their rate in the general population.
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, this disproportionality may exist because of high rates of poverty, geographic location, or racial bias and discrimination. Many families in poverty have more engagement with social service systems, like housing assistance, which can increase visibility bias.
In the same way many Americans oppose separating migrant children from their families at the border, we must also oppose a child protective system that is overly adversarial in its approach toward struggling parents. Removing children from their families for anything less than imminent danger is nothing more than punishment for the crime of being poor.
Removing children from their parents is not an inconsequential protective measure. Developments in scientific research have increased awareness that removals, or family separation, are traumatic and children do better with their biological parents. According to Joseph Doyle, professor and researcher at MIT, children tend to have better outcomes — including future employment, staying in school, and not becoming teen mothers — when they remain at home.
When children are removed from their parents, they can suffer psychological and physical effects from disrupted attachment to their biological parents, from the emotional disruption of being away from home, and from the difficult transition to foster care. The sense of loss from being separated from a parent can stunt development and lead to behavioral problems. Removals can cause feelings of instability, loss of control, and fear. For parents, removal of a child can exacerbate mental illness and cause mental distress.
In theory, even Child Protective Services (CPS) acknowledges that children should remain with their parents outside of immediate risk of harm, stating the agency goal is to keep children in the home whenever possible.
As we begin to more fully understand the critical need for family unity, the urgency and righteous anger about unnecessary separations of families at the border must extend to all families, including those in our states.
Charissa Huntzinger is a policy analyst for the Center for Families and Children at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.