Published in Children’s Voice, Volume 29, Number 1
by Felicity Sackville Northcott and Elaine Weisman
In 1924, a group of social workers sat down and resolved “…that skilled case work service to families in trouble…should be extended to operate at long distances and across frontiers.” This simple but forward-thinking idea is the cornerstone of the International Social Service (ISS) network’s work in more than 120 countries around the world.
As the U.S. partner of the ISS network, International Social Service, USA (ISSUSA) provides case management, technical assistance, training, and research on cases involving children separated from their families across an international border and for agencies that are charged with the care and protection of children in out-of-home care.
The Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) has been a valuable partner to ISS-USA in helping to understand emerging trends in cross-border issues, advocate for better protection policies, and serve children and families who, in the face of a separation, are in need of social services to remain safely and permanently together. Since both organizations were founded, we have seen increased regulation in intercountry adoption; the establishment of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which prevents the removal of Native American children from their native lands and cultural ties; and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by all countries except the United States, establishing the best interest of the child as paramount in permanency planning around the world. These changes provide legal framework to implement best practices in cross-border child protection.
Sadly, the challenges we face today to protect children and reunite families across borders are not unique, nor are they new—but understanding the history of child protection across state and national borders illustrates the growing need for embracing a global view of social work and best practices in cross-border case management.
Who Are Cross-Border Families?
Breaking Assumptions:Who Are We Asking?
Shortly after CWLA and ISS-USA were founded, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) was established in 1928. The IFSW promotes social work and social justice through membership around the world, establishing social work as a transnational profession that is essential in protecting the rights and well-being of children and families. Over time, however, international social work has come to be seen as a specialty that only applies to children who are immigrants or refugees, or to overseas work. Nothing can be farther from the truth— or more detrimental to the hundreds of thousands of children who are in our foster care systems or at risk of family separation. It is the responsibility of our domestic child welfare systems to increase awareness, training, and access to resources so that professionals working with children understand how to take on cases with an international component.
Around the world, approximately 258 million people— or one in every 30 people—were living outside their country of birth in 2017 (Hill, 2018). In the United States, one in four children under the age of 18 has at least one parent who is an immigrant; at least seven million Americans are living overseas, excluding members of the military. It is imperative that systems serving the best interests of children are prepared to work on these cases. The first step is to ensure that every child within the child protection system is assessed for family outside of the state or country.
Intersection of Immigration & Child Welfare
On the other hand, there are children whose immigration status and that of their parents is the defining challenge of resolving a permanency case. This includes children who are undocumented, having entered the United States as children with their parents or as unaccompanied minors, immigrant children residing in the United States with legal status, and U.S.-citizen children born to undocumented parents or Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders whose status has been recently revoked. There are unique vulnerabilities with these cases. For one, Title IV-E funds cannot be used to pay for services for undocumented children in foster care.While these funds and other federal funding for families who are low-income can be used for U.S.-born children and green card holders, immigrant and mixed-status families utilize public benefits at much lower rates than other individuals who are low-income (Demand Progress, 2012). This has far-reaching implications for children’s physical and mental health and for their ability to access the public services that are meant to protect them.
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Felicity Sackville Northcott is the Director of External Partnerships and International Services at International Social Service, USA. Dr. Northcott holds an MA and PhD in Anthropology from Johns Hopkins University and has published numerous articles on international child welfare, including Family Finding and Engagement Beyond the Bench: Working Across International Borders for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and The Role of Social Workers in International Legal Cooperation: Working Together to Serve the Best Interest of the Child for the Organization of American States. She has expertise in a range of international child welfare issues, including international adoption, international abduction, and international case management.
Elaine Weisman, LMSW/MPH, is the Program and Training Manager at International Social Service, USA, where she works to build partnerships and enhance collaboration for the protection of children crossing borders. In this role, Elaine delivers trainings for social work partners, both domestic and international, related to international child welfare. She has worked in international program management and social service delivery on issues related to community-based health care, immigrant and refugee youth, and mental health care for transnational families. Elaine holds masterʼs degrees in Social Work and Public Health from the University of Pennsylvania.