Child Welfare and the Challenge of New Americans

Article excerpt

Growing immigrant populations are creating questions for child welfare policy and practice.

A s the immigrant population continues to grow nationwide, the child welfare field has an increased need to effectively intersect with immigration practices, policies, and laws. Child welfare workers need to have the resources to actively pursue answers to a large number of confusing situations and questions that affect the lives of children from immigrant families.

Little concrete data exists about the number of immigrant children and families involved in the child welfare system; what's clear, however, is these families present unique challenges to child welfare systems that we can no longer ignore.

The intersection between child welfare and immigration unveils contradictions and gaps in knowledge, policy, law, and practice that affect many social and ethnic groups. Latino families and children, in particular, are disproportionately affected, and given the massive migration of Latino families in recent years, they present some of the greatest and most unique needs. According to the 2000 census, the Latino population in the United States has increased 61% since 1990. The 2004 American Community Survey estimated the Latino population now accounts for 14.2% of the overall U.S. population.

In addition to linguistic and cultural factors, child welfare practice needs to consider complex legal issues related to immigration, social welfare, and civil rights. As a group, immigrant families present a number of characteristics associated with negative child outcomes of safety, permanency, and well-being. For instance, according to several Urban Institute studies, Latino children continue to be the most uninsured racial and ethnic group in the United States, and roughly 10% of immigrants are children under age 18.

In a 2005 study, The Health and Well-Being of Young Children of Lmmigrants, the Urban Institute found poverty rates are generally higher among children of immigrants than among children of native-born citizens, and are highest for young children of immigrants. This same study also found young children of immigrants are less likely to receive public benefits, such as TANF, food stamps, and child care.

Child welfare practitioners often are unfamiliar with federal and state policies that affect immigrant children and families. National CASAs magazine The Connection, noted in 2006 that caseworkers must understand the resources and programs available to immigrant children and families, such as special immigrant juvenile status (see above, right), so caseworkers can educate their clients and make appropriate referrals to help families address issues resulting from migration and immigration status.

As the 2006 Urban Institute report, Lmmigration and Child and Family Policy, points out, however, immigration status within a family is often mixed, resulting in complex situations for which caseworkers frequently are unprepared.

Responding to the Challenges

Immigration and child welfare issues are slowly gaining national attention. Sustained technical assistance and training and education efforts by projects such as Bridging Refugee Youth and Children's Services, a project of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, are being built upon by national organizations such as the American Humane Association, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and CWLA, with a commitment to improving child welfare systems and outcomes for children.

Each of these organizations has been working along parallel roads to address these issues, publishing journals and undertaking initiatives to promote responses to the challenges immigration poses to child safety, permanency, and well-being.

In 2005, CWLA published a special issue of its journal, Child Welfare, on "Immigrants and Refugees in Child Welfare." This special issue represents an initial effort to provide a clearer picture of what happens when immigrant and refugee families, children, and youth intersect with the public child welfare system. …