Families Belong Together: The U.S. Has a Long History of Removing Children From Families
By Rachel Marshall, Federal Policy Counsel
For the past 15 years, research has shown that when children are separated from their families there are lifelong negative consequences. The stress children experience when separated from their families can lead to an increased risk of numerous diseases, depression, substance abuse, and early mortality. Despite this knowledge, more than 2,000 children, including breastfeeding babies and toddlers, have been forcibly removed from the care of their parents.
Unfortunately, our country has a long legacy of forcibly removing children from their families. Enslaved families were systemically torn apart as a means of social control--a practice whose impact haunts us to this day. In the late 1800s and into the 20th century, Native American children were also routinely taken from their families in order to be assimilated into white culture.
The legacy of separating children from their families continues to this day, where it is embedded in our criminal justice system. The U.S. leads the world in adult incarceration rates and over half of those people are parents. Two percent of incarcerated fathers’ and 11 percent of incarcerated mothers’ children wind up in foster care. In most places, when an incarcerated woman gives birth, her child is removed from her care and put into foster or kinship care. Many incarcerated parents could be effectively and safely be monitored at home in their community where they could still parent their children, but being a parent is not a consideration when meting out justice in our society.
Furthermore, far too often we continue to use incarceration as an acceptable intervention for typical childhood behavior. There are many examples of the way the U.S. has criminalized childhood, such as states like Arkansas where children as young as 8 and 9 are incarcerated for simply being hard to control. Instead of getting help, their parents’ get their parental rights turned over to the state.
Not surprisingly, the families that are impacted by these policies, like those fleeing violence in their home countries, are overwhelmingly families of color. The negative impacts of our history remain clearly visible today in our youth justice system where African American youth are four times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, Tribal youth are three times as likely to be incarcerated, and Hispanic youth are 61 percent more likely to be committed than white youth for the same crimes.
While the mere impact of incarceration can have a severe impact on children, that is not the only trauma these children face. Facilities that hold U.S. citizen children and immigrant children alike have long been accused of abusing the children in their care. In 2017, a Miami Herald investigation uncovered a pattern of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in Florida’s juvenile justice facilities, and staff at a juvenile facility in Texas face time in prison after reports of sexual misconduct. A recent report by the AP revealed that Latino youth, many of whom have been held after U.S. Immigration authorities accused them of gang membership, held at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia have been abused by guards. Many of the private companies operating immigrant youth shelters have also been accused of sexual and physical abuse. Ending the horrific policy of family separation is the step in the right direction, but make no mistake: placing families in detention together is also not a solution. Even if detained with their families, studies have shown that the detention of children still has a negative physical and emotional impact, and this is true of adult family members as well. It also does not guarantee these children will be safe from the same physical harm they face when incarcerated separately from their families. Again, this policy harkens back to another time in America’s past, when families of Japanese descent were interned in camps during World War II. Indefinite detention constitutes cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment; violates international human rights law; and exacerbates pain and suffering.
Further, reuniting families will not undo the trauma caused by the cruel separation policy. Both parent and child will be recovering from the psychological impact of separation and placing them in indefinite detention will likely mean they do not have access to the services they need to begin recovery. This is also assuming that families will actually be reunited. Recent news reports reveal that parents are having a hard time locating their children, and, in some cases, parents have been deported to their country of origin while their children remain in an unknown location in the U.S. Despite the fact that a federal judge ordered the administration to reunite all families and halt deportations of mosts parent separated from their child, the government has failed to meet the first deadline to return children under the age of 5 to their parents.
Instead of placing children in cages, we should be placing children in communities. Evidence is plentiful that allowing immigrant children and families to be placed in communities where they can resume normal daily activities and routines leads to better public safety and individual well-being outcomes. Study after study shows that communities with high populations of immigrants routinely have lower crime rates. In fact, a study by Robert Adelman, which was extended by The Marshall Project, showed that in the 10 places with the largest increases in immigrants, all had lower levels of crime in 2016 than they did in 1980.
In a reversal of policy, the Trump administration announced that it will be releasing some migrant families into the U.S. with with the parents wearing ankle monitors, but it is unclear whether they will take the same steps for parents with older children. These types of alternative programs to detention, like the Family Case Management Program, which the administration had shuttered last year, are proven to be highly effective. Not surprisingly, the same is true when we place justice-involved U.S. citizen youth in their communities rather than when we lock them up.
Congress and this administration must stop applying the failed “tough on crime” policies to the immigration community. They have harmed families, eroded communities, and compromised public safety. There is no reason to take these failed policies and apply them to immigrant families.