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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Family Separation Crisis: A Problematic Vetting Process, Challenges After Reunification

Shadi Houshyar, Ph.D.

Director of Early Childhood and Child Welfare Initiatives

On June 26, a federal ruling by U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California — the result of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit (ACLU) — ordered a stop to most family separations at the border and required the reunification of all families that have been separated. Although earlier reports put the number of children already separated from their parents at roughly 2,300, the administration has now identified nearly 3,000 children — including 101 children under 5 — who might have been separated from their parents. The number of children separated from their parents could continue to grow as it has come to light that government agencies separated families without clear documentation (or tracking) of when they were split apart.

Late last week, the Trump administration’s Justice Department asked a federal judge for more time to comply with the court order to reunify children separated from their families. It now appears that the administration has failed to meet Tuesday’s court-ordered deadline to reunite the youngest children who were separated from their parents with only four children reunited so far, and another 34-38 expected to be back with their parents by the end of Tuesday. Between 20-37 children who are supposed to be reunited with their families under the court order were not expected to be reunited in time due to logistical reasons; another 24 will not be reunited because the government has said it can’t safely reunite these children with their parents due to safety concerns or because the parent is being held in criminal jail.

Many families remain separated with a vetting process that raises concerns

Family separation — even for short periods of time — is distressing, traumatic and damaging to the health and well-being of children and parents. Longer periods of separation will lead to sustained and heightened distress and “toxic stress” that will have physiological effects on a child’s neuroendocrine and immune systems, stress regulatory system, and brain development with long-term implications for their health and well-being.

The vetting process that the administration is using to reunite parents with their children is wholly inappropriate. The process, established by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPRA), requires background checks of sponsors, in-person checks of where the child would live, and a full screening of people who live in that home. The judge in the ACLU lawsuit has ruled that while the government should be mindful of the best interest of each child it releases, it does not have to follow every single step of the process established by TVPRA as it was designed for screening non-parental sponsors of unaccompanied children to assure that potential placements are safe and appropriate. This process was not intended to assess placement of children who entered the U.S. together with their parents.

Also of concern, for some children, resolution could mean placement with any long-term sponsor, including foster care, and not their parents – even when reunifying with their parents is in their best interest. These children came to this country with their parents and should be reunified as soon as possible and without being subject to sponsorship requirements that are used to assess sponsor placement. Separation of a child from his or her parents should be done only in extreme cases, not as a matter of standing policy.

Once reunified, challenges remain

For families, the stress and uncertainty doesn’t end once reunified. Many will face a series of challenges, often involving lengthy, resource-intensive and difficult legal proceedings for those seeking asylum, deportation for others, and for some, only partial reunification — for instance, in cases where mother and child are reunited and a father remains in detention. Others still may face family detention while their case is processed.

We learned recently that the Trump administration was attempting to eliminate basic protections for children in detention, seeking to hold families indefinitely — certainly longer than the 20-day limit allowed under current law given the backlog in the immigration court system - until parents can have their cases adjudicated. On Monday, the administration lost its bid to persuade a federal court to allow long-term detention of migrant families. Now, since it has been ruled that children cannot be held for more than 20 days, it’s possible that some families could be separated yet again.

These continued separations and threats of separation are even more devastating given the evidence that parents are key to helping children recover from the trauma of forced separation, often without resources or support to help them navigate these challenges.

Looking ahead

The Trump administration zero-tolerance policy and subsequent missteps and actions have caused ‘irreparable harm’ to children and parents, with painful separations, lasting trauma and for many, an uncertain future. The longer children and parents are kept apart, the more damage is done. Children need their families. This administration forcibly separated families and it must bring them back together immediately.