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Peer Perspectives

Family Separation Ethics — Continuing the Conversation

By Kerri Evans, MSW, LCSW, and Kimberly Hokanson, MSW

The administration's policy on undocumented children and families continues to be a source of concern for those committed to ethical and compassionate treatment for this group. What is the policy and what are the implications for social workers?

US Border Policy
The administration's border policy has shifted and contradicted itself multiple times. In April 2018, the "zero tolerance" policy allowed for more than 1,995 children, some only months old, to be separated from their parents (Dickerson & Fernandez, 2018). After much public condemnation, President Trump signed an executive order ending family separation (Executive Order No. 13841, 2018). Thankfully, no law currently mandates the separation of families.

Unaccompanied Children
If you were abused by your caregivers, lived in a neighborhood of deprivation and violence, and your parents lived in the United States, what would you do (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2014)? More than 175,000 unaccompanied children (UC), most from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, have fled their country due to abuse in their home, violence in the community, and deprivation, to reunite with family and/or in search of greater opportunities, only to be apprehended at our borders (Office of Refugee Resettlement, n.d.). While the majority of these children were truly unaccompanied, recently, involuntarily separated children have entered the UC system run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

What are these placements like? How are UC treated? UC younger than 13, pregnant or parenting, and with special needs stay in foster homes; others go to group homes, called shelters. The Office of Refugee Resettlement provides food, clothing, medical care, educational enrichment, and mental health services (Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2015). While there are complaints about the care of UC, remember that these are licensed child welfare agencies and their struggles are no different than those of other group homes. Background checks are conducted on caregivers and most go home (some enter foster care). UC with higher needs receive 90 days of wrap-around services, but most receive a single follow-up call (Roth & Grace, 2015; Office of Refugee Resettlement, 2015). We can assume that neither of these are enough assistance to really help these families reunite and flourish.

Ethical Dilemmas
Our profession is rooted in six core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence (NASW, 2017). A policy that tears families apart is antithetical to these values. American Psychological Association President Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, ABPP, says the policy is "not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers" (American Psychological Association, 2018). The administration knew there was "no question" that family separation would lead to "traumatic psychological injury" and "significant harm to children" (Barajas, 2018). As social workers we know that the trauma inflicted on these children will last a lifetime, and fear that it will be passed on to future generations.

What's a social worker to do? If not with their parents, children should be in the least restrictive setting. Should we serve as foster parents, or work in agencies housing them? Is that enabling the system? Or are we providing the best care under bad circumstances? After all, if we do not serve them, who will? And what about agencies who profit from this crisis? What do we do about the alleged stories of abuse, neglect, forced psychiatric drug use (Gonzales, 2018)? How does all of this align with our ethics? It is a personal decision, but we should debate this more widely within our profession, as this crisis shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

Take Action
Social workers are known for taking action. It is time to stop watching the news. Get up and make a stand! Stay educated, and contact your representatives often, as the situation is changing regularly.

Advocate. If we do not want families separated, what do we want to happen instead? Let's include alternatives to separation so we do not default to detaining families. We can create innovative programs and advocate for funding to keep families fighting for asylum together in the least restrictive settings. Advocate for the reinstatement of two pilot programs, Family Case Management and Community Support, which utilize social workers and community volunteers to provide services (Bendix, 2017; Bremer, Haynes, Kang, Lynch, & Socha, 2013). Family case management was successful; 99% of clients attended courts dates, and "families have thrived" (Bendix). So why did this program coincidentally end on June 20, 2018, the same day family separation practices ended?

Volunteer. On a more micro level, you can also offer to help families impacted by family separation in your community. The agencies that provide care for UC are constantly in need of foster parents, volunteers to teach English or provide tutoring, and family mentors who can mentor both children and families alike. Upon arriving to a new community, these families are often eager to have help navigating the local bus system, learning about the best places for low-cost medical care and free community services, as well as what neighborhoods are safe and welcoming to explore. Committed individuals can volunteer to accompany these people to immigration court hearings. Lastly, volunteers can spend their time visiting with asylum seekers who are in detention as a means to provide emotional support and friendship.

— Kerri Evans, MSW, LCSW, is a doctoral student at Boston College School of Social Work who has worked on behalf of children and families for years in schools, adoption, and doing international family finding for youth in state custody. Most recently, she worked for more than five years as a social worker with unaccompanied children.

— Kimberly Hokanson, MSW, is a doctoral student at Boston College School of Social Work who has worked in the field of child welfare for more than a decade. She is currently pursuing her doctorate researching child welfare workforce issues, disproportionality, and child welfare generally.

American Psychological Association. (2018, May 29). Statement of APA president regarding the traumatic effects of separating immigrant families. Retrieved from www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2018/05/separating-immigrant-families.aspx.

Barajas J. (2018, July 31). Trump administration was warned of 'traumatic psychological injury' from family separations, official says. PBS website. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/trump-administration-was-warned-of-traumatic-psychological-injury-from-family-separations-official-says.

Bendix, A. (2017, June 9). ICE shuts down program for asylum-seekers. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2017/06/ice-shuts-down-program-for-asylum-seekers/529887/.

Bremer, M., Haynes, K., Kang, N., Lynch, M., & Socha, K. (2013). New models for alternatives to detention in the US. Forced Migration Review, 44, 50-51.

Dickerson, C., & Fernandez, M. (2018, June 20). What's behind the 'tender age' shelters opening for young migrants. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/us/tender-age-shelters-family-separation-immigration.html

Executive Order No. 13841 of June 20, 2018: Affording Congress an opportunity to address family separation. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-06-25/pdf/2018-13696.pdf.

Gonzales, R. (2018, July 30). Federal judge orders government to seek consent before medicating migrant children. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/07/30/634171415/federal-judge-orders-government-to-seek-consent-before-medicating-migrant-childr.

NASW. (2017). Code of ethics. Retrieved from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English.

Office of Refugee Resettlement (n.d.) Unaccompanied alien children. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/programs/ucs.

Office of Refugee Resettlement (2015). Children entering the United States unaccompanied. Retrieved from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/children-entering-the-united-states-unaccompanied.

Roth, B. J., & Grace, B. L. (2015). Falling through the cracks: The paradox of post-release services for unaccompanied child migrants. Children and Youth Services Review, 58, 244-252.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (2014). Children on the run: unaccompanied children leaving Central America and Mexico and the need for international protection. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/about-us/%20background/56fc266f4/%20children-on-the-run-full-report.html