Resource Development Associates

Child Welfare and Immigrant Families


By Patricia Marrone Bennett

Last month, I had one of those wonderful opportunities to step outside of my day-to-day work life and refresh my brain by attending a workshop. The topic of discussion was the social impact of the global economy and the fracturing of immigrant families. I learned some alarming facts regarding the disposition of children of undocumented parents who are discovered and detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE).

While both immigration and child welfare laws are based on the assumption that families will be, and should be, reunited, this is far from the practice. When undocumented parents are detained and deported, their children are relegated to foster care.  According to a study conducted by The Applied Research Center[1], these children often never see their parents again.

There are a variety of factors that give rise to this irrational and harmful practice:

  • Locating or communicating with undocumented parents, once detained by ICE, is very difficult for other family members, the legal system, or the child welfare system.
  • Detention facilities lack the capacity to enable parents to participate in “case plans” for reuniting with their children.
  • There is an absence of formal policy or written protocol in the child welfare system regarding these families.
  • There is a lack of Spanish and other foreign language skills, as well as a shortage of bicultural caseworkers. There are also far too few interpreters of indigenous languages such as Mayan.
  • The timetables of the child welfare system and ICE are very different; detention timelines are long, slow, and unpredictable, whereas child welfare deadlines are short and swift.  If a parent cannot be located in time or cannot access a telephone, the child enters the “dependency” process.
  • Parental rights can be terminated by the state if a child remains separated from the family for 15 out of 23 months.

There are approximately 4.5 million children born in the United States having at least one undocumented parent, and another 1 million undocumented children brought here below the age of 18.[2]  In Los Angeles County alone, the parents of approximately 1 in every 16 children in foster care have been detained or deported. Of notable interest are the approximately 5,100 children born in the U.S. who are in state custody nationwide because one or both parents have “disappeared” due to ICE. These children are citizens. Advocates observe that child welfare judges, lawyers, and case workers are often of the opinion that U.S.-born children should remain in the U.S. Many such children end up being adopted by white parents.

Since its inception, RDA has worked to support efforts to ensure reunification of families, reduction of long-term foster care, and implementation of culturally competent child welfare services.  We continue to work for a comprehensive integrated system of care and support for families and children who are dependent on public services of any type.  Becoming aware of the realities for immigrant children within the child welfare system adds another important area that must be addressed and changed.

[1] Wessler, S.F. Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System  November 2011

[2], Batalova, Jeanne and Lee, Alicia, Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States, (March 2012) Migration Policy Institute, find at

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