All Family Separations Are Not The Same: Reflections On The Border Crisis

October 5, 2018

By Richard J. Gelles, Ph.D., Managing Faculty Director:

The United States government policy of separating undocumented children from their parents at the southern border was, and remains, both egregious and a form of government child maltreatment. Thousands of children were separated at the onset of the Department of Justice’s new ”zero tolerance” policy. Weeks after a federal court ordered the government to re-unite children with their caregivers, hundreds of children remain separated and detained in facilities across the U.S.

Given my experience in the child welfare field, I was not entirely surprised that in the wake of the government’s actions to separate children from parents, other parent’s rights advocates would piggyback their concern about child separation onto the issue of undocumented children. On classic example of this piggybacking is offered by long-time parent’s rights advocate Richard Wexler, Executive Director of the National Center for Child Protection Reform. Commenting on the issue of foster care in Indiana, Wexler stated:


“Another way to understand why all this is bad for children is to look to the Mexican border. The sounds of desperate, crying children separated from their parents, on an audio recording smuggled out of a detention center, have been heard more than 2 million times. Experts warn that the trauma inflicted on children by separation from their parents is, in the words of one professor of pediatrics, “catastrophic.”

(Click here for the full article)

My argument today is that comparing the situation of separation of children at the U.S. border to the case foster care and the government removing children from their parents is a gross false equivalency. The comparison just does not hold up.

First, the child separation immigration policy is a process without due process. Children were separated because neither they nor their parents/caregivers had required documentation. Neither the children nor their parents were provided lawyers, and few even had hearings. Placement into foster care requires due process including court hearings and evidence, and the parents often are afforded counsel to protect their rights (the provision of counsel varies from state to state).

Second, the draconian separation of children at the border was done with a broad brush in service of a “zero-tolerance” policy. It is the nature of due process and the functioning of the American child welfare system that the vast majority of children suspected of being victims of maltreatment remain with their parents and caregivers. Of the children referred as suspected victims of maltreatment, a mere 2% are placed into foster care. In cases where the referral was substantiated, only one-quarter of the children are placed outside their home. Child welfare agencies are required by law to make reasonable efforts to keep children with their parents. By contrast, the Justice Department required the Department of Homeland Security to separate every undocumented child, irrespective of the nature of the case.

Third, separation is likely traumatic for any child. But in the case of foster care, children are separated from parents after a due process legal procedure determines that the children’s safety and well-being would be jeopardized if the children remained at home. No such examination occurs prior to border separation.

The debate over the strengths and weaknesses of the American child welfare system is complex enough without muddying the waters with false equivalencies.

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