Immigrant Families and Public Child Welfare: Barriers to Services and Approaches for Change

By Earner, Ilze | Child Welfare, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Immigrant Families and Public Child Welfare: Barriers to Services and Approaches for Change


Earner, Ilze, Child Welfare


This article describes the results of two focus groups of immigrant parents who recently experienced child protective investigations in New York City. The purpose of this study was: 1) to hear immigrant parents describe their experiences with child welfare services, 2) to identify barriers to services these parents encountered, and 3) advocate for changes in policy, program, and practice so that public child welfare services can effectively address the special needs of immigrant families, children, and youth. Barriers to child welfare services identified by immigrant parents in this study were caseworker's lack of knowledge about immigration status, cultural misunderstanding, and language access issues. Recommendations for addressing these barriers are offered.

"In my country when someone from the government knocks on your door, a family member disappears. I came to this country to give my children a better life, but they don't see that, all they see is someone who doesn't speak English, who doesn't know anything and they think we must be bad people who don't care about our families. They came and took my daughter and they did nothing to help me" is how one Guatemalan mother summarized her experience with child welfare services that started when the police were called to intervene in a domestic dispute. Unfortunately, her experience is not unlike that of a growing number of new immigrant families who come to the attention of public child welfare services providers often on the basis of a report of child abuse or neglect.

For many immigrant families this is often their first encounter with any type of formal social service system of which they have little previous knowledge or understanding and considerable fear. New immigrant families, children, and youth present service providers with unique challenges - a few have been identified such as cultural differences in parenting styles and expectations (Fong, 1997; Jambunathan, Burts, & Pierce, 2000; Kirn, 2002; Lin & Fu, 1990; Louie, 2001) and child discipline (Fontes, 2002; Newell, 2002; Wissow, 2000). Currently, little research exists within the child welfare or social work literature that examines how and why immigrant families, children, and youth come to the attention of child welfare, what their special needs are, and what barriers they encounter once they become involved with the system or outcomes of service intervention. This study seeks to address common barriers to services as identified by two different sets of immigrant parents the subjects of a child protective investigation in New York City.

Immigration patterns over the last decade have contributed to greatly changing the demographic profile of the United States (U.S. Census, 2001). Not only have the numbers of immigrants living in the United States increased, but also a larger proportion of this population consists of families and children (Fix & Capps, 2002; Logan, Zhang, & Alba, 2002). Recent studies suggest that as a group these newcomers have significant handicaps that not only impede their ability to adjust to living in America but, coupled with legislative initiatives that restrict access to basic safety net services based on immigration status, they are also experiencing increasing economic, social, and psychological stress and family problems (Capps, Passel, Perez-Lopez, & Fix, 2003; Capps, Ku, & Fix, 2002; Reardon-Anderson, Capps, & Fix, 2002; Siegel & Kappaz, 2002). In combination, these factors can affect the safety and well-being of children in families and as a result, more new immigrants and their children are coming to the attention of state child welfare services providers (Committee for Hispanic Children and Families [CHCF] and Coalition for Asian American Children and Families [CAACF], 1997; Problems, 2002).

No national or state-wide data currently exists to indicate the number of immigrant families, children, and youth involved with public child welfare services; however, local surveys of community-based service providers do show that in neighborhoods where high concentrations of new immigrants reside, they are increasingly represented in child protective investigations or as recipients of foster care and preventive services (CHCF, 2001; Impact, 2003; Weeks, 2001). …

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