Children in Harm's Way - Criminal Justice, Immigration Enforcement, and Child Welfare

In 1998, the Child Welfare League of America published a seminal issue of Child Welfare describing the needs of children with parents in prison. It marked a milestone in what has become an ongoing effort to influence how the child welfare system responds to children whose parents are arrested and the support available to relatives caring for children whose parents are incarcerated. It pointed to policies and practices that either ignored the needs of this group of vulnerable children and their families, or created impediments to reunifying children with parents who had been incarcerated. This publication, produced jointly by The Sentencing Project and First Focus, introduces readers to concerns about a subgroup of this vulnerable group of children: children whose parents are affected by the interplay of the criminal justice, child welfare, and immigration enforcement systems.

In the past decade, the federal government dramatically changed its approach to enforcing federal immigration laws and the scale of its efforts. As a result, a growing number of parents are being apprehended by local and state police (often for relatively minor offenses), turned over to federal immigration authorities, held in federal detention centers, and then returned to their home countries. In many cases, their children are U.S. citizens who are forced to leave their homes to be with their parents, or who remain in the United States permanently separated from their parents. Others end up in the foster care system where they may be placed for adoption.

The number of people being held in immigration detention centers while waiting for their cases to be heard in administrative immigration proceedings has reached a historic high at a time when prison growth is otherwise beginning to slow. For-profit prison companies are poised to seize on this opportunity to bolster their profit margins. This became most evident in 2010 when Arizona legislators adopted the notorious S.B. 1070 law, perceived by many as an open invitation for law enforcement agencies to engage in racial profiling. Not long after the enactment of S.B. 1070, it became clear that the legislation was based on a blueprint that had been handed out by representatives of the private prison industry at a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Like an echo from the past, the questions being raised about children whose parents are targets of stepped-up immigration enforcement are similar to those that were first raised nearly 20 years ago about children whose parents were then being sent to jails and prisons in record numbers. Those questions include:

·         What happens to children in the wake of authorities taking their parents into custody?

·         How do children of color view the legal system after seeing so many members of their communities being taken away by police?

·         How are communities changed when arrests or immigration enforcement actions can happen at any time?

·         And, a central issue in the articles assembled here: How does the child welfare system help or hinder families in the wake of criminal or immigration court actions against parents?

(From First Focus)

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