Trump Is Playing Chicken With Children’s Lives

The U.S. child welfare system is strained to its limits. Family separation could push it over the edge.

A child at the U.S.-Mexico fence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on April 4. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)
A child at the U.S.-Mexico fence in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on April 4. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

In the last week, the U.S. public has been shocked by the newly instituted policy of separating children from their families at the border. Obviously, breaking up families unnecessarily is abhorrent. But the true ramifications are even worse. The child welfare system is primed — deliberately — for crisis.

I spent five years in social work, and then another eight years as an attorney specializing in family protection. For people at the intersection of immigration and child welfare, the current crisis is terrifying. The Trump administration is turning the known failure points of the broader child welfare system in the United States into a weapon against those seeking safety by exploiting the system’s natural weaknesses and pushing them to the point of collapse. The resulting tragedies will terrify potential migrants — and permanently harm the image of the United States as surely as, for instance, Romania’s loveless orphanages did that country’s reputation.

This situation is dire. Over the last century, child welfare programs in the United States have developed a hard-won set of guiding principles. First and most importantly, the best interests of the child are paramount, not fuzzier political goals. The children entering care are victims of abuse and neglect, and they’re often in need of aid themselves for trauma, psychological issues, and physical ailments.

Second, children should be reunited with parents as soon as it is safe, but if it is not safe, then children should be placed with relatives or, if that is not possible, with foster parents as soon as possible. Group homes and institutional settings are places of last resort, often reserved for children in the juvenile justice system. All of those places — kinship placements, foster homes, group settings, and even juvenile detention facilities — are subject to close oversight by the states, which typically receive funding from the federal government.

[George Takei was sent to a Japanese American internment camp at just 5 years old — but they didn’t separate children from families.]

Even with those guiding principles in place, the U.S. child welfare system is dependent on social workers with large caseloads, and decades of financial starvation made even worse by the recent sequestration by Congress. The average child protective worker is handling a caseload in excess of that recommended, and sometimes drastically more — far beyond their contemporaries in other developed economies like the United Kingdom. Time and again, when the system is overburdened by large caseloads, mistakes happen, sometimes fatal ones. The majority of participants in the system, both foster parents and social workers, are well-meaning and heroically strive for the best for their charges, but it only takes a handful of bad actors or neglectful officials to create situations where children end up sexually or physically abused, or dead.

The influx created by the new policies is likely to break the system entirely. Up until now, the intersection of child welfare and immigration enforcement came through the relatively obscure Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a program under the Department of Health and Human Services. The stated goal of ORR is to place refugees, asylum-seekers, and others in the best position to succeed in the United States by helping them settle, finding employment for them, and providing necessary services. The Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program was a part of this effort, meant to provide a safe environment for children who enter the United States without lawful immigration status and without parents.

The majority of children in this program were placed with a close relative when possible. According to the ORR’s own reporting, before the current crisis, the program used child welfare best practices to attempt to keep children safe but lacked the manpower to utilize the full panoply of social work tools to follow up with these children, instead relying on the immigration process to oversee their continued health and well-being. This means that, as the agency itself has admitted, it often loses track of children once they have been placed, with no attendant agency at the local level responsible for taking up the slack.

A year ago, President Donald Trump’s now-chief of staff, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, mused that it might be necessary to separate children from their parents. Despite the administration’s protestations to the contrary that its hand was forced by the Democrats and existing law, the policy was framed then as a new tactic, to function as a deterrent. And starting in May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would begin prosecuting all individuals crossing the border — while separating parents from their children: “If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”

After that speech, the plan went into wide operation, immediately overburdening the ORR and pushing the already strained UAC Program to the breaking point. The program was already struggling with record numbers of children being referred to it by Homeland Security. The number of children entering the program had nearly doubled between 2015 and 2016. The number of children in care went from 3,503 to 6,508 during that period, mostly coming from countries in Central America suffering from internal strife.

At that time, before the decision to separate children from their parents unnecessarily, the UAC Program was only dealing with children whom it recognized as possessing refugee and asylum-seeking status. Since then, the Trump administration’s current tactics have meant that almost 2,000 children have entered ORR’s care between April 19 and the end of May alone. If the Trump administration’s efforts continue, ORR is on track to have to deal with as many children in the next three months as it did in the record-setting 2016 fiscal year alone.

If the images of children being taken from their parents and housed behind chain-link fences in massive warehouses is offensive to the average American, it is doubly so to those in the child welfare field. The Trump administration knows this. It knows this because child welfare programs in the United States are overseen at the federal level by the Department of Health and Human Services, which in turn oversees the ORR and its UAC Program. Data from all 50 states, U.S. territories, and Native American reservations all feed into the department, and it in turn sifts through it and promulgates best practices. Not only is the current practice contrary to the standards recommended by its own agencies over the last few decades, but also the cost will be paid by innocents — both migrant children in custody through no fault of their own and children already in the U.S. system who will suffer further as resources become critically overstretched.

If there is a basic law of child welfare in the United States, it is to not remove a child from their parents without cause, but that is exactly what is being done here. As the ORR’s own reporting shows, the system was strained to the breaking point already. Adding thousands more children to the UAC Program as part of a purely political attempt at deterrence is not just a mistake — it’s a mistake that will traumatize children, cause lasting damage to the image of the United States, and inevitably lead to tragedy. Children will be lost in the system and unable to reunite with parents. Children will die from medically avoidable causes. And children will be raped by the predators who seek out the weak and vulnerable. The damage done to the image of the United States will be as sure and permanent as the stain left on the Catholic Church by its tolerance of child abuse.

But the Trump administration knows that tragedy is coming, and it suits its purposes. Overburdening the system means that images of children living under mylar blankets in huge warehouses make it into the mass media, which then dissuade those who might come here seeking safety. Whatever tragedies come will be international news and will strike fear into the heart of any parent who wants to cross the border. It will also permanently tarnish the reputation of the United States — but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

The underlying logic of the administration is that, no matter what happens, no matter how bad the appearance or the scandal, its larger policy goal of discouraging immigration to this country will succeed. In fact, the worse the crisis, and the more horrifying the outcome, the better. This is a game of chicken being played against families who have no choice but to run to this country — one where the worse the crash, as far as the administration is concerned, the better.