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Caught Between Systems: Helping Immigrant Children with Incarcerated, Deported, and Detained Parents

Yali Lincroft is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

Yali LincroftYali Lincroft is being honored as a Champion of Change for her dedication to the well-being of children of incarcerated parents.

My involvement with helping children of incarcerated parents began in the summer of 2004 when I was first hired by the Annie E. Casey Foundation to examine the issues surrounding immigrant and refugee families in the child welfare system. The report I eventually wrote and published for the Casey Foundation in 2006, “Undercounted, Underserved: Immigrants and Refugees in the Child Welfare System,” documented the increasing trend of children with incarcerated/detained immigrant parents in the child welfare system. And, my research talking with researchers and policymakers, frontline child welfare workers, attorneys, adoptive parents, foster youth, and the detained parents themselves gave me insights into current practices and policies throughout the U.S. In particular, the stories from children whose worlds were turned upside down because of the deportation of their parents, mothers and fathers who risked everything to be reunited with their children, or undocumented foster youth who but didn’t apply for eligible relief options because their attorney or social worker didn’t know about these options have haunted me ever since. 

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, nearly 205,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported in the 26 months between July 1, 2010, and September 31, 2012. When parents are detained or deported, often with little warning or preparation time, their children are often left without consistent and permanent caregivers. Currently, there is an estimated 5,100 children nationwide in the child welfare system because their parents are under immigration custody or have been deported. This number is expected to rise to 15,000 in the next five years. Many of these parents will never have a realistic opportunity to be reunified with their children because parents who are deported or in immigration detainment are frequently unable to access services or meet requirements set out by dependency courts to regain custody. Though immigrant relatives may be willing to take custody of a child when the parent is in this situation, they are often turned down by the child welfare system because of their immigration status. As a result, children can be permanently separated from their families. All too often, we hear of heart-breaking stories, like young children who lost their bilingual language ability because they were in English-speaking foster care and now couldn’t communicate with their parents or relatives.

Working with First Focus and SPARC, a project designed to help state child welfare advocates make an even bigger impact, I have been focused on addressing this awkward intersection of immigration, child welfare, and the criminal justice system through state and federal legislation. On September 30, 2012, California Governor Brown signed “The Reuniting Immigrant Families Act” (SB1064 – de León), which became the first act in the country to address family separation issues as a consequence of the current immigration enforcement system. The bill extended the family reunification period for deportees, established working agreements with foreign consulates around child custody cases, provided screening and assessment for eligible immigration relief options, and allowed family members, regardless of their immigration status, the ability to take custody of a child left behind in the deportation process. This bill is being replicated legislatively in Arizona, Illinois, and New York and administratively in many more states. Several pieces of federal legislation addressing this issue have been introduced in partnership with First Focus by Senator Franken, Representative Roybal-Allard, and Representative O-Rourke. Most recently, the massive “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” introduced by the Senate Gang of 8 includes several important modifications impacting state child welfare plans to promote the reunification of detained or removed parents with their children in the child welfare system.

America has the opportunity to fix our immigration system by passing comprehensive immigration reform. It is important in these discussions that the thousands of children and families who have been adversely impacted by this broken system and involved in the child welfare system are taken into consideration during this rare opportunity of reform.

Yali Lincroft is a Policy Consultant for First Focus and a Program Officer with the Walter S. Johnson Foundation. She is also a founding member of the Migration and Child Welfare National Network (MCWNN), a coalition focused on helping immigrant families in the child welfare system. MCWNN is housed at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Chicago.