Children's Voice July/August 2007

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Child Welfare and the Challenge of New Americans

Growing immigrant populations are creating questions for child welfare policy and practice.

By Sonia Velazquez, Ilze Earner, and Yali Lincroft

As the immigrant population continues to grow nationwide, the child welfare field has an increased need to effectively intersect with immigration practices, policies, and laws. Child welfare workers need to have the resources to actively pursue answers to a large number of confusing situations and questions that affect the lives of children from immigrant families.

Little concrete data exists about the number of immigrant children and families involved in the child welfare system; what's clear, however, is these families present unique challenges to child welfare systems that we can no longer ignore.

The intersection between child welfare and immigration unveils contradictions and gaps in knowledge, policy, law, and practice that affect many social and ethnic groups. Latino families and children, in particular, are disproportionately affected, and given the massive migration of Latino families in recent years, they present some of the greatest and most unique needs. According to the 2000 census, the Latino population in the United States has increased 61% since 1990. The 2004 American Community Survey estimated the Latino population now accounts for 14.2% of the overall U.S. population.

In addition to linguistic and cultural factors, child welfare practice needs to consider complex legal issues related to immigration, social welfare, and civil rights. As a group, immigrant families present a number of characteristics associated with negative child outcomes of safety, permanency, and well-being. For instance, according to several Urban Institute studies, Latino children continue to be the most uninsured racial and ethnic group in the United States, and roughly 10% of immigrants are children under age 18.

In a 2005 study, The Health and Well-Being of Young Children of Immigrants, the Urban Institute found poverty rates are generally higher among children of immigrants than among children of native-born citizens, and are highest for young children of immigrants. This same study also found young children of immigrants are less likely to receive public benefits, such as TANF, food stamps, and child care.

Child welfare practitioners often are unfamiliar with federal and state policies that affect immigrant children and families. National CASA's magazine The Connection, noted in 2006 that caseworkers must understand the resources and programs available to immigrant children and families, such as special immigrant juvenile status, so caseworkers can educate their clients and make appropriate referrals to help families address issues resulting from migration and immigration status.

As the 2006 Urban Institute report, Immigration and Child and Family Policy, points out, however, immigration status within a family is often mixed, resulting in complex situations for which caseworkers frequently are unprepared.

Responding to the Challenges

Immigration and child welfare issues are slowly gaining national attention. Sustained technical assistance and training and education efforts by projects such as Bridging Refugee Youth and Children's Services, a project of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, are being built upon by national organizations such as the American Humane Association, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and CWLA, with a commitment to improving child welfare systems and outcomes for children.

Each of these organizations has been working along parallel roads to address these issues, publishing journals and undertaking initiatives to promote responses to the challenges immigration poses to child safety, permanency, and well-being.

In 2005, CWLA published a special issue of its journal, Child Welfare, on "Immigrants and Refugees in Child Welfare." This special issue represents an initial effort to provide a clearer picture of what happens when immigrant and refugee families, children, and youth intersect with the public child welfare system.

In 2006, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report, Undercounted, Underserved: Immigrant and Refugee Families in the Child Welfare System, drawing attention to the need for child welfare to focus on immigrant families, and providing examples of best practices and policy recommendations. The report is a result of targeted interviews, literature review, and a consultative session with individuals with expertise in both immigration and child welfare.

Also in 2006, American Humane's quarterly journal, Protecting Children, published an issue entitled "Migration: A Critical Issue for Child Welfare" that presented important emerging concerns about child and family well-being from national, international, and interdisciplinary perspectives. American Humane and Loyola University Chicago Graduate School of Social Work collaborated on the issue to promote a national discussion on the intersection of immigration and child welfare issues, examining how immigration affects child welfare policy, practice, research, funding, and professional development.

In July 2006, American Humane and Loyola University hosted a roundtable discussion in Chicago on immigration and child welfare. The gathering brought together more than 70 diverse professionals from the United States and Mexico to discuss the migration of individuals and families in the United States and South America and its effect on children and on child welfare policy, systems, and services. (See The Migration and Child Welfare Network.) Dialogue examined
  • causes, patterns, and projections of migratory flows in the Americas;

  • migration and its effects on the family;

  • migration and child well-being, including child maltreatment, mental and physical health, and education;

  • current and proposed immigration laws and policies as they relate to child welfare practice; and

  • the effect of migrating families and immigration policies and laws on child welfare systems.
The roundtable formed the basis of a multidisciplinary collaboration designed to inform and influence policy at the local, state, national, and international levels. The roundtable report, Migration: A Critical Issue for Child Welfare, highlights specific issues and activities relating to research, training, policy, advocacy, elimination of barriers, and collaboration across systems.

Immigrant children are quickly becoming the new Americans. That this vulnerable and rapidly growing population receives the services needed to thrive is in everyone's best interest. Their unique service needs cross all areas of child welfare and must be included in debates about how to accomplish the child welfare mandates of safety, permanency, and well-being.

Sonia Velazquez is Vice President, Children's Services Division, American Humane Association. Ilze Earner is Assistant Professor, Hunter College School of Social Work. Yali Lincroft is a consultant for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the California Family to Family Initiative.
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