The Center on Immigration and Child Welfare pursues and supports research that advances our mission to improve policy and practice with immigrant children and families at risk of involvement with the child welfare system.
U.S. public child-serving institutions are designed to create opportunities for all children to thrive in environments where they experience positive and healthy development, setting them up for a productive adulthood. The U.S. child welfare system is charged with the protection of children. When children experience threats to safety, the child welfare system intervenes on their behalf to provide targeted services that are aimed at preserving and strengthening families.  When this is not possible, children are placed in other caregiving arrangements.  The Center on Immigration and Child Welfare supports research aimed at improving programs and policies related to the well-being of immigrant children and families involved in the public child welfare system. Our priorities for research align with our vision to see children of immigrants thrive in their communities and families in the U.S.

Immigrant families in the U.S. are as heterogeneous as the demographic makeup of our country. The members of a single family often have different immigration statuses, different migration journeys, different reasons for migration, and different needs in the U.S.

Immigration policy in the U.S. often creates substantial stress and burden for children and families.  Pre-migration, migration, and settlement experiences are discrete events, but all impact child and family well-being:

  • Pre-migration circumstances. Decisions to migrate are driven by economic, political, environmental, and social factors. Despite fluctuations in migratory flows, a complex set of factors has driven migration from areas such as Central America in particular since 2014. Violence carried out by gangs continue to overwhelm the Northern Triangle countries, which have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Poverty and lack of economic opportunity are also key reasons for emigration to the U.S. Another major reason for migration to the U.S. is family reunification. The specific reasons why immigrant families and children leave their country of origin—or are forced to leave—have implications for their safety and well-being upon arrival.
  • Migration experience. The migratory experience itself can be extremely traumatic, particularly in transit countries. Robbery, assault, rape, and kidnapping are common experiences along the migratory journey. The human rights abuses experienced by children are particularly concerning; many arrive to the U.S. severely traumatized.  Many children also migrate multiple times, increasing risk of threats to safety and mental health.
  • Settlement. The social, economic, and political conditions of the places where immigrant families settle also have implications for child safety and well-being. Federal laws govern who has legal status to work and access to public benefits. Local and state laws can affect access to benefits such as health insurance, safety net programs, and child care for children, as well as the ability to drive and afford college, which affect the opportunities that families have to promote the healthy development of their children.

The policies driving the immigration and child welfare systems are evidence of our country’s complex and sometimes contradictory values in how deserving immigrant groups are defined and the best interests of children are determined. U.S. immigration policies are rapidly changing, creating circumstances for children and families newly arrived to the U.S. that are overwhelming and impose long-term challenges to their well-being. Recent increases in the detention and deportation of immigrants, and the accompanying anti-immigrant rhetoric, have destabilized many immigrant communities and families. Following the 2016 presidential election, the threats towards immigrants intensified a culture of fear and trauma among immigrant children and families, decreasing enrollment in supportive social programs, which may prolong stress and result in negative health and mental health outcomes.

Most children of immigrants served by the U.S. child welfare system are reported for child abuse or neglect, preventable problems with traumatic consequences that persist into adolescence and adulthood. However, with the recent rise of immigration enforcement activities, a growing number of immigrant children in contact with the child welfare system may potentially be unaccompanied minors and children separated from deported parents. While the circumstances that bring unaccompanied minors to the attention of the child welfare system are different from traditional reasons for child welfare involvement, many of them are also traumatized by experiences that are often preventable.

The principles of prevention inform our framework for research, with the goal to improve the health, safety, and well-being of all immigrant children and children of immigrants in contact with the child welfare system. Research to inform the primary prevention of child welfare system involvement seeks to expose a broad segment of immigrant children and their families to prevention measures that reduce and prevent involvement before it ever occurs. Secondary prevention research aims to reduce negative impacts of child welfare system involvement after contact has occurred to mitigate further trauma and redress the circumstances that lead to involvement. Research on tertiary prevention strategies seeks to buffer the impact of child welfare system involvement in ongoing or unresolved circumstances by helping children of immigrants and their families to find long-term solutions to stabilize and improve their functioning and quality of life.

Research Priorities

Primary Prevention

  • Research that examines the impact and costs of anti-immigrant policies, heightened immigration enforcement actions, and resulting immigrant experiences (such as discrimination and fear, and parental detention/deportation) on child well-being and access to public services and supports for children.
  • Research evaluating community and local responses to the needs of immigrant families in the context of heightened immigration enforcement, to identify, for example, how health outreach workers, community-based organizations, and other trusted outreach strategies can be effective in preventing child welfare system involvement.
  • Research that delineates the process and effectiveness of family safety plans (i.e. deportation planning) in preventing risks to child safety and involvement with the child welfare system.
  • Research examining the uses of safety net policies and programs for child maltreatment prevention in the immigrant population, including the effects of proposed changes to public charge definition on the use of the social safety net among legal immigrants.
  • Research that evaluates strategies to prevent child maltreatment and reduce stress due to immigration-related experiences.

Secondary Prevention

  • Research that delineates etiologies and typologies of child abuse and neglect among children of immigrants in the U.S.
  • Research that examines pathways of children of immigrants into the child welfare system as a result of parental deportation
  • Research that examines pathways of unaccompanied minors into the child welfare system
  • Research on interventions to prevention entry into foster care that are culturally adapted or designed for children of immigrants and their families

Tertiary Prevention

  • Research that examines the impact of child and parent immigration status on child welfare system decision-making and child trajectories through the child protective services and foster care system
  • Researching evaluating the impact of state child welfare policies related to immigration issues on permanency outcomes for children of immigrants.
  • Research that examines relationships between child welfare system capacity in language, culture, and immigration expertise and outcomes for children of immigrants
  • Research that evaluates promising approaches, best practice models, and policy implementation designed to better serve children of immigrants in the custody of the child welfare system.

Affiliated Researchers

Alan Dettlaff, PhD, MSW

Dean and Professor, University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work

Dr. Dettlaff’s research focuses on understanding the experiences of children of immigrants involved in the child welfare system in order to facilitate policy and practice improvements in child welfare agencies and positive outcomes.

Monica Faulkner, PhD, LMSW

Research Associate Professor, Steve Hicks School of Social Work, The University of Texas at Austin
Director, Texas Institute for Child and Family Wellbeing

Dr. Faulkner completes program evaluation for child maltreatment prevention programs, mixed methods research on undocumented Latino families and deportation impacts, needs assessments of child welfare systems, and research on the overlap between child welfare system involvement and immigration.

Megan Finno-Velasquez, PhD, LMSW

Assistant Professor, Director
Center on Immigration and Child Welfare
School of Social Work, New Mexico State University

Dr. Finno-Velasquez’s research focuses on the impact of immigration policy on child welfare system experiences of immigrant families, and maltreatment prevention in immigrant communities. She uses quantitative methods for large survey and administrative data analyses, as well as qualitative methods.

Robin Hernandez-Mekonnen, PhD, MSW

Associate Professor of Social Work
Faculty, Child Welfare Education Institute
School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Stockton University

Dr. Hernandez-Mekonnen’s work focuses on understanding how the child welfare workforce interprets their mission of safety, permanency, and well-being with work with immigrant families, and emphasizes the importance of identifying and advocating for vital resources and policies to support immigrant children and families. Her research expertise includes quantitative and qualitative methods, with a preference for mixed methods designs.

Kristina Lovato, PhD., MSW

Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, California State University, Long Beach

Dr. Lovato’s research focuses on enhancing child and family well-being among immigrant families, particularly those at risk of immigration enforcement and child welfare involvement. Dr. Lovato’s current work uses qualitative approaches to examine how Latino youth cope with family disruption following the deportation of a parent, and how schools and social service systems respond to the needs of these youths and their families.

Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, PhD, MSW

Associate Professor, The Ohio State University, College of Social Work

Dr. Johnson-Motoyama’s scholarship focuses on the use of policy to prevent child maltreatment and reduce social disparities in child welfare, with an emphasis on Latinx populations. She currently leads a national, longitudinal study that examines the effects of changes in economic and social safety net policies on child maltreatment during the Great Recession, and beyond. She also serves as Associate Editor for Children and Youth Services Review, one of the field’s premier child welfare journals.

Heather Koball, PhD

Director, Family Economic Security Unit, National Center for Children in Poverty, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University

Dr. Koball’s research focuses on the impact of state immigration enforcement policies and state expansions of public benefits for immigrants on the well-being of children of immigrants. She uses both qualitative and rigorous quantitative methods in her work, such as difference-in-difference analyses of policy impacts.

Benjamin J. Roth, PhD

Assistant Professor, College of Social Work, University of South Carolina

Dr. Roth’s research is on immigrant children/youth and the various axes of stratification that shape their well-being and development. His recent work on legal status focuses on youth with DACA and unaccompanied children, with a particular focus on how the physical, social, and political geography of where immigrant youth grow up influences their life chances.