Children's Voice September/October 2008

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Helping Immigrant Families

Interviews with four California social workers

By Yali Lincroft

Recent shifts in immigration enforcement and the implementation of large-scale workplace raids have created panic in the immigrant community and increased fears of working with any government agency. In response to increased immigration raids, community agencies and advocates have mobilized to develop outreach materials and response plans. The role of child welfare and the courts in assisting children left behind after the raids forces child welfare agencies to become knowledgeable about state and federal polices that affect permanency planning. They must be able to navigate unfamiliar systems to facilitate parent-child reunification or identify alternative permanency arrangements in the best interest of the child.

Social workers throughout the country are often at a loss in working with the immigrant community. There is usually no agency policy about what to do with undocumented children and family, and social workers typically have little experience in placing a child with relatives living abroad. It is challenging to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services, and paying for services with limited nonfederal funds are problematic.

Additionally, relationships with foreign consulates for initiating transnational collaboration are new or nonexistent for many child welfare agencies. Four California social workers specializing in immigration issues are interviewed in this article. The advice from these seasoned professional can assist others in developing programs and policies to meet the needs of this growing population.

Olga Nassif, Children's Services Supervisor/International Liaison Unit, Riverside County Department of Social Services

"It's important to begin work immediately with the Mexican consulate and the Mexican child welfare agency (DIF) to apply for dual citizenship when placing a U.S. citizen child with relatives abroad. Similar to the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act, all education, health, and vital records should be transferred. You don't want a child to not enroll in school or not get services because of missing records."

About Riverside County: With a large influx of Los Angeles commuters moving to Riverside to take advantage of its affordable housing, Riverside is one of the fastest growing counties in Southern California. Hispanics constitute about 40% of the population. There are approximately 5,400 children in care in Riverside County.

Can you describe your International Liaison Unit? There are two service assistants and a supervisor who form this unit and we serve as secondary on cases. All our staff is bilingual, we have a list of all court-certified child welfare staff available to translate in different languages in our agency, and we use a translating agency.

The International Liaison Unit notifies the consulates when their nationals are involved with the juvenile system and processes requests for home studies, birth certificates, parent locator, criminal record clearance, and other related services. Our unit also works on repatriation when it is in the best interest of the child. We have 10 social workers designated to travel for placement of children with relative placements abroad. These social workers prepare the repatriation packet and transport and place children in foreign countries, as well as when children are repatriated back to the U.S. from foreign countries.

Since 90% of our cases involve Mexico, we have formed a close relationship with the Mexican consulate, Mexican child welfare agencies, and the U.S. embassies in Mexico. Since 2003, we served the Consulate of Mexico a total of 1,232 families and repatriated 96 children. We work with the Office of Refugee Resettlement on cases involving refugee youth.

What advice do you have for agencies doing this work? The Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 requires states verify citizenship or immigration status of any child in foster care under the responsibility of the state. To ensure compliance the social worker must inquire about the resident status of the child and immediately start the documentation searches so that there aren't unnecessary delays for potential immigration relief options that are time-sensitive.

Cecilia Saco, Supervising Children's Social Worker, Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services

"Like investigative reporters, we contact the consulates, schools, and churches in a foreign country, relatives, and others to help us gather vital documents. We work with our state office to request delayed registrations of births for foreign-born children never registered in their home country. The process involves a relative taking an affidavit verifying the date and location of birth. A baptism certificate can sometimes be used. Bone scan tests are also used but they are costly and done only when no other information is available."

About Los Angeles: More than one-third of all the immigrants in California live in Los Angeles and 62% of all Los Angeles children have an immigrant parent. Los Angeles has approximately 23,000 children in care.

Can you describe the Special Immigrant Status Unit? The Special Immigrant Status Unit started in 1988. We currently consist of one supervising children's social worker, four children's social workers, four eligibility workers, two intermediate clerks, and one graduate intern. We serve as secondary for most cases-except for one region of the county that has a high concentration of immigrants, where we are the primary. All of us are county-certified translators, thus reducing our reliance on outside translators not familiar with child welfare terms. The unit has our own funds to pay for the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status filing fees and for transportation to bring the clients to the immigration interviews. Instead of relying on a low-income family to pay for this fee or requesting a fee waiver from immigration, having our own budget has really helped speed up the application process.

What advice do you have for new agencies doing this work? The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) local field office staff has a lot of discretion in cases so it's important to build a relationship with your local USCIS agency. We have quarterly meetings with the local USCIS staff to review filings and discuss cases.

Anita Ruiz, Immigration Liaison, Fresno County Department of Children and Family Services

"We have an excellent partnership with the Mexican consulate that will share their immigration legal counsel on child welfare cases, assist us in gathering vital documents, and with placing children with relatives in Mexico."

About Fresno County: Fresno County is a large, primarily agricultural county in central California. The county's racial make-up is approximately 34% white/non- Hispanic, 47% Hispanic, 6% Black, and 9% Asian (mostly Hmong), with approximately 2,500 children in care.

What does your position as the Immigration Liaison for Fresno County entail? This position first began 10 years ago as a contract position with a nonprofit agency and then as an internal part-time/office assistant position. Two years ago, it was changed to a full-time social work position and is considered a secondary on cases. I have monthly in-house meetings with management and front/backend child welfare staff focused on practice and policy issues. I help ensure the Hague Convention notifications are completed in a timely manner. By incorporating my position into the Emergency Response programs, families are referred to community agencies for possible immigration relief options.

What advice do you have for new agencies doing this work? It helps to form partnerships. I work closely with Fresno State University in training child welfare staff on immigration issues. Working with the Mexican Consulate, we developed a Central Valley Child Welfare Social Work Network as a forum for regional collaboration.

Janet Barragán, International Liaison, San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, Child Welfare Services

"This year, our Child Abduction and Protection Conference had over 400 professionals from the U.S. and Mexico--social workers, judges, attorneys. The San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, District Attorney's office, the California Attorney General's office, and the Mexican Consulate General organized the conference. The conference was translated simultaneously in Spanish and English and helped us share information from both sides of the border."

About San Diego County: San Diego is the sixth largest county in the U.S. and is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. San Diego has the world's busiest border, totaling over 70 million crossings per year, and has the highest number of apprehensions of undocumented immigrants anywhere in the country. There are approximately 5,000 children in care in San Diego County.

Can you describe your International Liaison Unit? The international liaison position has evolved over the years. A senior social worker staffs the position with one support staff. With the workload increasing 37% yearly since 2005, a second support staff was recently allocated. Last year, our unit processed 1,497 international services requests. We assist our agency in all international aspects affecting the safety and the delivery of services to children and families. We identify how to coordinate social services with other agencies worldwide and we cross-report child abuse allegations to other Social Services agencies internationally. We also conduct courtesy home evaluations for Social Services agencies from other countries.

What assistance is most commonly requested? The most common requests are for parent searches, criminal record checks, vital document searches, home visits coordination, adoption studies, and other essential legal documents. Similar to the U.S., Mexico has numerous state and local municipalities. It is a challenge to work with these multiple jurisdictions. Mexican social workers are dedicated and capable professionals who may have limited resources; together we collaborate and often are successful in the reunification of families.

What advice do you have for new agencies doing this work? The social worker should contact the potential relative placement abroad directly. By connecting with the relatives, the family becomes the liaison between their child welfare services agency and ours and jointly we can expedite a successful placement.

Yali Lincroft MBA is a consultant for the Family-to-Family Initiative/Annie E. Casey Foundation. She is on the steering committee of the Migration and Child Welfare National Network, a coalition to improve services for immigrant families in the child welfare system funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the American Humane Association. View more information.

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