The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 20, 2018

Current policies show that family preservation is a fundamental American value

Research shows that healthy development depends on stability in children’s housing, education, health care, access to food, and above all, family. Children must have a strong connection with a parent, as a child’s ability to deal with severe adversity is dependent on having the emotional stability and sense of safety that comes from being with a loving parent or guardian who can shield him or her from negative situations. 

Children crossing the border into the United States have already lost stability in all aspects of their lives, except their parents. The administration’s policy to separate migrant parents from their children, which the president ended today in response to public outrage, removed this last and most critical support, jeopardizing the healthy development of these children.

In addition to causing immediate emotional trauma, losing a parent can have long-term consequences on children’s lives, rewiring their brains and shaping their long-term development and success. This is problematic at any age, but can be particularly destructive for young children, such as the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers being placed in “tender age” shelters. The experiences of children whose parents have been deported demonstrate that family separation causes trauma. 

Policies across government acknowledge the importance of families

The policy of family separation was in direct contrast with other government policies that acknowledge the importance of preserving families, even in the face of extreme challenges.

Preserving and enhancing parent-child bonds are central to many of our federally funded social service programs, most of which are administered by the US Department of Health and Human Services (the same agency taking custody of unaccompanied and separated children). Good examples of these programs include parenting education and the foster care system.

In recent years there has been a major focus at both the national and state levels on supporting home visiting programs, which focus on connecting parents with young children to nurses, social workers, or parent educators who can help them gain parenting skills to support their children’s development.  These programs are designed to strengthen healthy parent-child connections.

Acknowledging the importance of family preservation, the recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act seeks to reduce the placement of children in foster care, which has long been a focus of the foster care system. The new law supports families at risk of entering the child welfare system with reimbursement for mental health services, substance use treatment, and in-home parenting training. The law also provides states incentives to place children in family-like settings, rather than congregate care like the kind being used to detain immigrant children which have been shown to be problematic for children’s development.

Changes to the foster care system might also direct funds to support keeping families together as they cope with various challenges, including those related to opioid abuse, while new initiatives like the Sobriety Treatment and Recovery Teams program seek to preserve families affected by the opioid crisis.

Unwarranted family separation is harmful and wasteful

Family has long been a cornerstone of our immigration system. But many of the administration’s actions, like reducing the number of family-based visas and penalizing families who use social services, demonstrate an increasing disregard for this principle.

Family separation should occur only if a child is in danger, and even then, the family should be reestablished as soon as it is safe for the child to return. The family separation policy contradicted what we have encoded in many of our public policies, by removing children from healthy families and placing them in danger. 

The evidence on the negative effects of this strategy led respected health organizations to condemn the administration’s child separation policy, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Medical Association.

The administration's family separation policy was also not an efficient or effective use of public resources. Placing children in the care of the government, which has happened to more than 2,000 children since the administration’s “no tolerance” policy took effect in May, comes with huge administrative costs. More-efficient solutions for migrants seeking asylum, like ankle bracelet monitoring, allow for strict immigration enforcement while placing the job of child care with parents, rather than the government.

Many policies in our system support and enhance family life and the parent-child bond. Policies that deal with immigrant families crossing the border should reflect the basic American principle that families are important and deserve protection.

A US Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the US-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

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