The US must adopt child welfare strategies for unaccompanied minors

The US must adopt child welfare strategies for unaccompanied minors
© John Moore: Getty images

Since January 2021, more than 65,000 unaccompanied children have arrived at the U.S./Mexico border seeking refuge from violence, natural disaster, food insecurity, and poverty in Central America and other struggling countries, creating what many are calling a “crisis.” But as experts in child welfare and immigration, we view this not as a crisis but a failure of our government to welcome children with compassion, or at the very least with consideration of the best interest principles that drive our U.S. domestic child welfare system.  

Ironically, the same government agency that oversees domestic child welfare, the Department of Health and Human Services, is also responsible for the welfare of “unaccompanied” immigrant children. Yet the two systems operate very differently.  A child or youth detained by immigration officials at the border will be designated “unaccompanied” if they are traveling without a parent or legal guardian. This means that children who arrive with non-parental caregivers including grandparents, siblings, or other trusted adults are typically separated from that adult and transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), effectively creating government-forced family separation. 

In contrast, in the U.S. domestic child welfare system, children generally are not separated from a caregiver absent documented evidence of abuse or neglect, and removal from relative caregivers is considered a last resort. Family foster homes are the preferred placement for children without viable family placement options, and congregate care settings are avoided whenever possible.  

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Yet, for immigrant children traveling with a non-parental adult caretaker, current policy requires them to be separated from that person and placed into ORR custody, causing needless trauma for families. ORR then works to release children to an adult family member or friend, referred to as a “sponsor,” a process that can take upwards of a month and in some cases many months.  Children and youth without identified sponsors can linger in long-term government care for years

In recent months, as unaccompanied children have begun entering the U.S. in unprecedented numbers, the government was wholly unprepared to process and provide temporary housing for thousands of children and youth. ORR does not have close to enough capacity to care for unaccompanied children in foster home settings, and has relied heavily for years on large congregate facilities across the country to house them. Similar to the 2018 surge of unaccompanied minors that caused public uproar over children in cages and tent camps along the border, ORR quickly ran out of space in its network of licensed facilities, and has again fallen back on the use of huge influx facilities as well as new “emergency intake sites” to hold hundreds or even thousands of children. 

As child welfare experts, we know that congregate care can cause severe harm, especially for young children, and results in high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. The domestic child welfare system has been phasing out the use of large congregate care settings for children because of the known risks associated with them. There is no question that large temporary ORR facilities are better than lingering in border patrol custody. And yet, they are no place for children. We knew this in 2018, and we know this now. 

The Biden administration can and must take both immediate and long-term steps to improve conditions for migrant children by upholding its promise to implement a more “fair and humane” immigration policy than that of its predecessor. Our recommendations incorporate learnings from the decades of research and experience gleaned from the domestic child welfare system, as well as immigrant communities that have been responding to influx and emergency facilities on the ground.  

In the short term, the administration must reduce the number of children entering ORR custody by assessing non-parent caregivers at the border and keeping children with them unless there is evidence of abuse or neglect (while still maintaining the “unaccompanied” designation). This type of quick assessment of caregivers happens routinely in the domestic child welfare system. 

In the medium term, the administration must increase ORR-licensed bed capacity quickly so that all children may be placed in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their needs, prioritizing family and small group care.  To do this, the administration should: 

  1. Work with immigrant-led community-based and faith-based organizations to conduct outreach and trainings for community-based organizations about the process to be certified and licensed as group home providers or foster care agencies; 
  2. Ensure that ORR’s funding structure makes small group home settings financially viable for organizations operating them, and consider incentivizing contracts with smaller organizations and facilities; 
  3. Create a comprehensive emergency plan to quickly expand ORR capacity in the future when the number of children referred exceeds its licensed bed capacity — one that relies on trained families and small organizations and not on tried and failed models of influx and emergency intake sites.   

In the long run, this administration must reform the entire immigration system to center the best interests of children. We must re-envision how children are received at the border, pivoting away from an immigration enforcement model to adopt a child welfare approach. We ultimately need an overhaul of our nation’s outdated and punitive immigration laws to offer a path to legal citizenship and respond humanely to children in a timely way to prevent further trauma and begin healing.  

Megan Finno-Velasquez, PhD, LMSW, is the director of Center on Immigration and Child Welfare, New Mexico State University. Kristina Lovato, PhD, MSW, is an assistant professor at the School of Social Work, California State University, Long Beach. Rachel Prandini, JD, is a staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.