With contributions from Megan Finno-Velasquez.


There are two main pathways to entry into the child welfare system: 1) direct, when immigration enforcement (i.e., parent detention, deportation) causes family separation, leaving no one to care for the children, and 2) indirect, when stressors and pressures related to the migration and acculturation experiences of immigrant parents and communities lead to increased vulnerabilities and risk of child maltreatment.

Regardless of how children come into contact with the child welfare system, cases involving immigration issues introduce much complexity to routine practice. There is often a lack of coordination between local ICE and child welfare agencies when children are placed in foster care, which creates difficulty in maintaining connections between children and parents and in coordinating reunification at the time of the parent’s release or removal. Parents are often unable to visit with their child, meet child welfare case plan requirements, or participate in family court proceedings.

Furthermore, relatives willing and able to care for children might be undocumented themselves or reside outside the U.S. and are often not considered to be viable resources for children due to bias among child welfare staff and judges. Strict child welfare timelines can result in the inappropriate termination of parental rights. Immigrant families also face significant barriers to receiving needed services due to inadequate capacity within child welfare agencies to understand and screen for appropriate immigration relief options and provide culturally and linguistically responsive services.

Policies for addressing the unique needs of immigrant families and children vary state by state and even county by county, and a majority of child welfare systems are unequipped to serve immigrant families and their children. Some state child welfare agencies have memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with foreign consulates to delineate procedures for accessing necessary documentation, locating detained parents, facilitating family reunification, and coordinating with foreign child welfare authorities. Some have specialized units or staff with expertise in immigration issues that screen for and obtain immigration relief for children, and in some cases, parents who are victims of abuse, neglect, abandonment, trafficking, sexual assault, or violent crimes. Some have staff experts to provide guidance on cases of immigration-related family separation or child welfare system involvement of children and/or parents who are immigrants.

In 2012, California passed the first state legislation (SB 1064) to remove barriers to reunification faced by immigrant families involved in the child welfare system and prioritize preserving children’s ties to their families in the face of immigration detention and deportation. The effects of its adoption and implementation have not yet been evaluated. A new promising collaborative effort by the Pima County Court and social services agencies on the U.S. and Mexico sides of the border in Tucson, AZ recently resulted in the creation of a best practices toolkit for judges and attorneys who are involved in cases in borderland areas to address transnational issues.

In 2015, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families issued a memo that contains guidelines for child welfare agencies working with immigrants. It encourages child welfare agencies and others that work with families with parent(s) at risk of, or who are, being detained or deported to engage in case planning activities that ensure the safety, permanency, and well-being of all children in foster care.

One quarter of all children in the U.S. today are children of immigrants. These children face the daily threat of separation from their parents, chronic fear, trauma, and resulting developmental issues, which may increase placement into the child welfare system, especially in the current climate of heightened immigration enforcement priorities. Additionally, hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minor children arriving in the U.S. in recent years are often released to state child welfare custody or to otherwise precarious and unstable living situations. Many of these children are not tracked or monitored once released to sponsors, increasing risk of abuse, neglect, and abandonment, which will undoubtedly impact child welfare for decades to come.

The public child welfare system is drastically under-equipped to address the specific needs and unique situations of children and families with ties to the immigration system, especially when family members are undocumented, in detention, or residing in other countries. As a result, children suffer disrupted attachments, interrupted learning, developmental traumas, and permanent loss of crucial family connections.

Unfortunately, we do not have reliable estimates of the number of immigrant children with child welfare system involvement. The majority of what we know about immigrants and child welfare is through administrative data systems or national survey data. California linked administrative data has shown children with immigrant parents to be at lower risk for referral to the child welfare system in the first five years of life compared to children with U.S. born mothers.

A nationally representative survey of child welfare involved families conducted between 2008 and 2009, the second National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAWII), estimated that approximately 1 in 10 children involved in the child welfare system have at least one immigrant parent. This data contradicts the prevailing narrative of children of immigrants which stipulates that they are at greater risk for child welfare involvement due to immigration-related stressors (i.e. poverty, domestic violence, acculturative stress), especially among Latino immigrant families. During the survey period, there was no difference in the proportion of confirmed maltreatment victims between immigrant and U.S.-born parents.

However, some of the risks related to child welfare involvement differed for children in immigrant families. NSCAWII survey data have also shown that children in immigrant families who become involved in the child welfare system have inadequate access to needed services, possibly due to linguistic and cultural barriers as well as concerns for family privacy and fear of exposing immigration status. An undocumented legal status may actually be the greatest barrier to immigrant family service receipt. Additional barriers to service receipt arise from the general lack of resources available in poorer communities where immigrants often reside and from ineffectiveness among the service providers and systems serving immigrant families.

There continues to be a dearth of evidence around how immigrant status and immigration enforcement influences involvement with and trajectories through the child welfare system. A 2011 study estimated that there are 5,100 children involved with the child welfare system as a result of parental detention and deportation, but that is no longer considered to be an accurate estimate. Part of the challenge is that information on immigration status and deportation is difficult to capture as it is not yet recorded at the federal or state levels, and states and localities often lack the ability or motivation to systematically collect and analyze this data on their own.

The CICW is a national interdisciplinary professional network that aims to improve programs and policies related to immigrant children and families involved in the public child welfare system to achieve positive outcomes of safety, permanency, and well-being. As a center, one of our primary goals is to increase the availability of high quality research related to the intersection of immigration and child welfare issues. In November 2017, we hosted a national roundtable that identified gaps in research and several new priority areas of work.

A research working group that formed at our 2017 Roundtable has developed a new statement and collaborative research plan to delineate priorities for future research. The principles of prevention inform our framework for research, which seeks to improve the health, safety, and well-being of all immigrant children in contact with the child welfare system.

Research to inform the primary prevention of child welfare system involvement aims to expose a broad segment of immigrant children and their families to prevention measures that reduce and prevent involvement before it ever occurs. Secondary prevention seeks to reduce the impact of child welfare system involvement after contact has occurred to reduce further trauma and redress the circumstances that lead to involvement. Tertiary prevention strategies seek to buffer the impact of child welfare system involvement in ongoing or unresolved circumstances by helping children of immigrants and their families manage long-term situations with the goal of improving their functioning and quality of life.

Our identified research needs fall under the three levels of prevention:

Primary Prevention

  • The impact of heightened immigration enforcement and resulting immigrant experiences, such as discrimination and fear, as well as parental detention and deportation, on child well-being and access to public services and supports
  • Community and local responses to the needs of immigrant families in the context of heightened immigration enforcement (how health outreach workers, community-based organizations, and other trusted outreach strategies can be effective in preventing child welfare system involvement)
  • Uses of safety net policies and programs for child maltreatment prevention in the immigrant population, including examining the effects of proposed changes to the public charge definition on the use of the social safety net among legal immigrants
  • Strategies to prevent child maltreatment and reduce stress due to immigration-related experiences

Secondary Prevention

  • Etiologies and typologies of child abuse and neglect among children of immigrants in the U.S.
  • Pathways of children of immigrants into the child welfare system as a result of parental deportation
  • Pathways of unaccompanied minors into the public child welfare system
  • Interventions to prevention entry into foster care that are culturally adapted or designed for children of immigrants and their families

Tertiary Prevention

  • The impact of child and parent immigration status on child welfare system decision-making and child trajectories through the child welfare system
  • The impact of state child welfare policies related to immigration issues on permanency outcomes for children of immigrants
  • Relationship between child welfare system capacity (in language, culture, and immigration expertise) and outcomes for children of immigrants
  • Evaluation of promising approaches, best practice models, and policy implementation designed to better serve children of immigrants in the custody of the child welfare system

Some of the most important policy and regulation changes to be aware of include:

  • California’s SB1064: This is the first law in the U.S. to address the reunification barriers faced by immigrant families involved in the child welfare system and prioritizes preserving children’s ties to their families in the face of immigration detention and deportation.
  • ICE Directive on the Detention and Removal of Alien Parents or Legal Guardians: The August 2017 Directive replaces ICE’s 2013 Parental Interests Directive which was put in place to discourage the detention of parents and legal guardians who were undergoing immigration proceedings and to mitigate the consequences of immigration enforcement on parental rights and child well-being. The 2017 Directive provides guidance on accommodating a parent or legal guardian’s efforts to make child care arrangements at the time of arrest. The Directive preserves language from the 2013 policy on parent-child visitation, facilitates detained parents’ and legal guardians’ ability to make travel arrangements for children, and ensures that detained parents involved in child custody proceedings can participate in family court.
  • Proposed changes to “Public Charge” policies: The Trump administration plans to propose regulations that discard past policy about the meaning and application of the “public charge” provisions of immigration law. The new regulations would expand the benefits considered in determining whether a person is likely to become a public charge. Immigrants’ use of programs related to their or their families’ health and well-being could be considered in decisions on whether to grant lawful permanent residence.
  • Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS): Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) is one of the most common immigration relief options for immigrant youth and is a pathway to a green card for immigrant children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both of their parents. Recent backlogs in the processing of SIJS applications are delaying permanency for many eligible children and youth.
  • Southern Arizona Transnational Task Force Model (Pima County): This collaborative effort by the Pima County Court and social services agencies on the U.S. and Mexico sides of the border in Tucson, AZ has resulted in the creation of a best practices toolkit for judges and attorneys who are involved in cases that include immigration and child welfare systems.

Funders can support research that addresses any of the topics listed in Question #5, so that we may gain understanding of the current conditions and needs of these children and families. In the current political environment, there is a lack of federal funding for immigration-related research, nor is there enough funding for national organizations to do localized research in each state. This has translated to researchers spending more time attempting to raise money and less time conducting actual research. Private funders and foundations can play a critical role in filling this gap, furthering much-needed research at the intersection of immigration and child welfare by funding the design, testing, and evaluation of the system’s work with children in immigrant families and their translation and dissemination to broader child welfare audiences.

Collecting data relevant to immigration in child welfare systems raises concerns for data confidentiality potentially putting individuals at increased risk for contact with immigration officials if documentation status is shared. Any efforts to support research should also contain plans for the ethical use of data, particularly around protecting data confidentiality of immigrants.

Funders can also support ongoing collaborative work to build expertise and increase capacity of child welfare agencies to work with immigrant families. In addition to promoting the expansion of rigorous research in this area, the CICW has recently updated our strategic plan with the goals of increasing information sharing among individuals and agencies working at the intersection of child welfare and immigration issues and increasing capacity within state and county systems to serve immigrants involved with the child welfare system.

The CICW also distributes a bi-monthly e-newsletter with the latest news, practice, policy, and research resources at the intersection of immigration and child welfare. To stay connected to the latest, most relevant developments in practice, policy, and research, visit our website at www.cimmcw.org.