The Need for a Child-Focused Social Service Response to the Growing Number of Unaccompanied Children Entering the U.S.

A recent article outlining the Obama administration’s proposed increase in funding to house unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. Mexican border there was not a single mention of the social service needs of these children. The proposed procedure is to “house” children in army, or air force, barracks while “… a search is conducted for family, a sponsor or a foster parent who can care for them through their immigration court hearings, where many will apply for asylum or other special protective status.” Who, precisely, is going to conduct those searches? Who is going to work with the children to identify potential caregivers who are appropriate, safe, and committed to the child’s best interest?
Past case practice in family finding for unaccompanied alien minors, and decisions about when and with whom to place them, has proven to be woefully inadequate. Speed of placement has been the primary factor in deciding with whom to place a child rather than what is in the child’s best interest. With the growing number of unaccompanied children expected to skyrocket this year temporary housing solutions on military bases will not provide any incentive to locate and evaluate for the appropriateness of the potential care givers for these children. The push will be to get the kids out of the temporary placements as quickly as possible to make room for others.
The reason why this plan, like all those before it, will not fulfill its obligation to the vulnerable children it purports to protect is because the United States has not developed a comprehensive social service response to this humanitarian crisis. We have a fiscal response, a legal response, and an immigration response. But we don’t have a child protection response. The fact is that the work that needs to be done to protect these children, to reunite them with appropriate adult guardians, and evaluate what future placement is best for them must be done by trained social workers. There must be a coordinated effort to develop a social work workforce capable of undertaking these tasks.
Domestic social work is just beginning to truly understand the importance of family finding and engagement. We must build the capacity of our child protection social work staff to fully embrace family finding and remind them that these children are going to have family both in the United States and in the countries from where they arrived. It is imperative that family finding, and planning for these children’s future, be a cooperative effort between our domestic child protection system and social service agencies in the children’s countries of origin. There must be an organized cross-border social service response to the increasing number of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. that relies on best practices in child protection and child welfare established by international treaties.
We will not be able protect the vulnerable children entering our country in search of a safer and healthier life by simply increasing the existing funds for an inadequate system. We must increase the capacity of our child protection service system, the system we rely on to protect our own children, to provide services to promote the safety, well-being and permanency of every unaccompanied child crossing our border.

Read the official press release on the White House’s response to this crisis