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.