Parental Abduction & National Missing Children’s Day

In April, I was honored to be asked to present at the I Stand Parent Network in Washington, D.C. The network is composed of left-behind parents whose children have been internationally abducted by the other parent. The organization is both a support for these parents as well as an active voice of change and advocacy for children and left-behind parents. My presentation was the last one of the day, so I had the opportunity to watch presentations from federal agencies and individual legal counsel on a variety of topics. There was a heavy presence of legal and governmental representatives, attesting to the fact that the conversation around abduction is often relegated to the court room.

These parents have done everything they can to follow the available legal options to have their children legally returned under international treaties or bi-lateral agreements. Every single one of these parents has spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to try and find a way to have their children returned. Some have issued arrest warrants for the abducting parent in the event the abductor voluntarily returns to the U.S. Some have extradition orders in place in the country where the abducting parent is living. Some have agreed to mediation. But far too many have never received the necessary legal advice to proceed with their case in an informed manner. There are too few attorneys who are knowledgeable about these cases, and many parents have received incorrect legal advice. Parents often unwittingly participate in foreign custody hearings thinking they are being cooperative, only to have their parental rights terminated and to receive a legally binding court order of custody preventing them from moving forward with their case.

No one parent’s story mirrors another. Each abduction and/or denial of access is unique in its tragedy. As I spent time with the parents and listened to their stories, I was surprised by so much of it. I was surprised to discover how many fathers are the abductors. I was shocked at the means by which the abducting parents obtained travel documents to get the child out of the country. I was appalled at the impotence of the legal system to enforce international treaties and conventions. But what surprised me most was how incredibly strong each and every one of those parents was. It is an unimaginable tragedy to have your child kidnapped by the one other person in that child’s life who should care the most for him or her. Even worse is the almost universal occurrence of parental alienation, as the child’s abductor weaves stories of abandonment to prevent the child from wanting to reach out to the left-behind parent. May 25th is National Missing Children’s Day. To learn more about parentally abducted children, visit Return us Home.

ISS-USA’s Regional Conference in Guatemala

Coordinated Cross-Border Social Services for Children and Families Migrating in the Northern Triangle, Mexico and the U.S.

April 28-29, 2016 ~ Antigua, Guatemala

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Thanks to the generous support from our project donor, ISS-USA hosted an international meeting in Antigua, Guatemala entitled “Coordinated Cross-Border Social Services for Children and Families Migrating in the Northern Triangle, Mexico and the United States.”
The regional conference, which was originally conceived as a training for new and existing ISS partners in the Northern Triangle, grew into a platform for participants from five countries representing government, civil society, advocacy groups and academia to generate a dialogue around needs and solutions for cross-border child welfare and social services.

The second day of the conference was an opportunity for the group to discuss and define outstanding questions and concerns, which included both logistical questions around protocols and managing complex cases as well as the need for a coordinated network of child welfare professionals. Suggestions included defining roles and responsibilities within a multidisciplinary network, and working towards an integrated prevention, intervention and rights-based approach for protection.

Participants also articulated goals to address the outstanding concerns. Goals included creating a stronger feedback loop among stakeholders to help enforce protocols, incorporating more government and civil society actors to strengthen the network of providers, and working as a network to understand cross-border differences and similarities in protocols to assess opportunities for sharing and collaboration.

We ended the conference by generating a list of action steps and individual commitments to move towards a coordinated network for cross-border services. Participants proposed creating national coalitions with consistent communication mechanisms as well as conducting outreach among government and civil society actors in order to build strategic partners and allies. Notably, the group committed to maintaining ongoing, cross-border contact with conference participants and the extended network of stakeholders to guarantee safe repatriation, reunification and reintegration strategies that are viable and collaborative. View the Conference Summary for more information.

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April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month

“Building Community, Building Hope”

National Child Abuse Prevention Month 2016

This month, and in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, we acknowledge the importance of preventing child abuse and neglect as well as promoting family strengthening. While much progress has been made over the years, there is still more to be done to protect children from harm.

This month and throughout the year, ISS-USA encourages all individuals and organizations to raise public awareness of child abuse and neglect and recommit efforts and resources to protect children and strengthen families. By equipping parents and caregivers with the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to care for their children, we can all play a role in preventing child abuse and neglect in our communities while helping children thrive.

Research shows that promoting protective factors that are present in healthy families is among the most effective ways to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect. These factors area:

• Nurturing and attachment
• Knowledge of parenting and of child and youth development
• Parental resilience
• Social connections
• Concrete supports for parents
• Social and emotional competence of children

In support of these efforts, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, its Child Welfare Information Gateway, the FRIENDS National Center for Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention, and over 30 National Prevention Partners, have created a resource guide: 2016 Prevention Resource Guide: Building Community, Building Hope. This guide was created primarily to support community-based child abuse prevention professionals who work to prevent child maltreatment and promote well-being.

We encourage you to share child abuse and neglect prevention strategies, activities, and resources, which are compiled from various entities below:

Tip sheets for parents & caregivers
2016 National Conference on Child Abuse & Neglect
Child Welfare.Gov’s Resources
Get involved in your own community

To learn about what ISS-USA is doing to prevent abuses and protect children and families in Central America, read about our upcoming regional training in Central America. You can also help us protect children and strengthen families by Donating to ISS-USA. Donations help support case managers in providing key social services to protect children, such as home studies, child protection alerts, child welfare checks, relative tracings, and more.

National Strategy to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities

CECANF’s Recent Report Outlines Recommendations to Prevent Child Abuse

Recently, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities (CECANF) released its final report: Within Our Reach: A National Strategy to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities. CECANF is a federal agency established by legislation to study and make recommendations on eliminating child abuse and neglect fatalities. Over the course of two years, CECANF reviewed issues related to child abuse and neglect, and heard testimony from researchers, government leaders, and public and private organizations in the field of child welfare.

Within Our Reach outlines a proactive approach to child safety by emphasizing stronger collaboration among relevant agencies, more informed decision-making based on better data and resources, and a public health approach that reiterates the importance of prevention.

CECANF photo

We hope this report is thoughtfully acknowledged by state and local policymakers. While disagreements may arise surrounding methods and approaches to implement these recommendations, one fact remains the same: we should not accept fatalities as inevitable. Any preventable deaths of children should not be pushed aside. The report notes that if nothing changes in an approach to prevent child abuse and neglect fatalities, between 1,500 and 3,000 U.S. children will die from maltreatment in 2016, 2017, and beyond. The awful fact that an estimated four to eight children a day die from abuse or neglect is unacceptable. We hope that this public health-focused approach paves the way for future changes, prevents crises from occurring, and increases protection and support for vulnerable children.

Continue reading about the report’s key findings.

Understanding the Refugee Crisis

Stay Informed and Welcome Others

In light of the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut, there have been varied reactions to the way countries address the influx of refugees, ranging from acceptance, to fear, hostility, and significant backlash.

As an organization that has a 90-year history of serving vulnerable populations that include refugees and migrants from a variety of countries, ISS-USA believes that refugees should be welcomed and helped rather than feared and discriminated against. It is often due to reasons related to violence, persecution, and terrorism that refugees are forced to flee their home countries and try to find a safe place for themselves and their families.

It is the responsibility of individuals to stay informed about the current refugee crisis and understand the complicated process by which refugees are resettled into another country.

We would like to arm our readers with resources by other experts in the field that address these topics in order to adequately understand these issues, create positive outcomes, and ultimately welcome others whose lives have been disrupted by violence and persecution.

• According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), up to 700,000 refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe by sea alone this year. More than half of them — an estimated 53% — are from Syria.
UNHCR published a Global Trends Report and this series of infographics through its UNHCR Innovation division, demonstrating the scale of the global displacement crisis.
• Lutheran Services in Georgia helps us understand how we should respond to the refugee crisis in light of the recent attacks in Paris & Beirut in this post .
• Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) produced a variety of helpful tools, articles, and infographics such as the one below to help us understand the refugee crisis in Syria, including this helpful Fact Sheet.
International Rescue Committee disbanded various myths that endanger refugees in this post.
lirs syrian crisis
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While the attention now is on refugees in Europe, we can still help here in the U.S. by staying informed, welcoming others, and giving back to organizations who are advocating for, and providing humanitarian aid to, refugees.

We Never Outgrow the Need for a Family

ISS-USA Reflects on National Adoption Month with Thomas Waterfield

November is National Adoption Month: a time to increase awareness about the need for adoptive families for thousands of children in the U.S. waiting for permanent families. This November, National Adoption Month sheds light on the critical need for finding families for older youth. More than 20,000 children age out of the U.S. foster care system every year without ever having found a permanent family. For more information on National Adoption Month, please see the Children’s Bureau’s Adoption Month page.

There is no specific day or month dedicated to intercountry adoption, yet there are millions of children around the world living without the care and protection of a family. We believe that our work is not done until every child is reunited with a family whose only goal is the safety and well-being of that child. It matters not where that family is from, nor whether they are biologically related to the child. If it is in the child’s best interest to be placed with a particular family, then all necessary steps must be taken to ensure that the placement occurs. It is the right of every child to have a family, and domestic and intercountry adoption are two ways to promote and protect that right.

ISS-USA became involved with intercountry adoption in the 1940s but substantially decreased its involvement through the 70’s and beyond. Yet, ISS-USA remains linked to the past through our archived adoption records and requests for assistance to find and connect adoptees to their biological families. At our recent 90th Anniversary celebration, we were honored to meet the grandson of the Hollywood icon, Jane Russell. Ajaye and his wife, Taylor, attended our 90th Event on behalf of his family, and in particular on behalf of Thomas Waterfield, Ajaye’s Dad, who was adopted by Russell in 1951.
jane russell
Thomas was 15 months old in 1951 when Russell and her husband, Bob Waterfield, former Los Angeles Rams NFL star, adopted him. Thomas’ biological mother, Hannah Kavanagh, was living in London at the time and wanted to give her son a better life. Her family was living in deep poverty, and Hannah wanted better for her son. Hannah’s family migrated from Scotland to Ireland. They barely survived living in Northern Ireland, as they were living in extreme poverty with limited access to food and other basic necessities. Hannah eventually met her husband near Galway, Ireland, and together they immigrated to London. It was while the Kavanaghs were in London that Hannah read about Jane Russell’s scheduled command performances for the Queen of England. Hannah reached out to Jane Russell by letter, and the two met to arrange the informal adoption of Thomas. Jane Russell went on to establish her own adoption foundation to help orphans around the world find homes. This organization, the World Adoption International Fund (WAIF), was initially the international adoption and fundraising branch of ISS-USA. While ISS-USA’s focus shifted and the organizations parted ways to focus on their respective missions, their history is intertwined.

Thomas is now a musician living in Arizona. He has been back to Ireland on many occasions to visit his biological family and plans to return to Ireland in the next year. He hopes to release a book later in 2016 detailing his life and family’s involvement in the field of intercountry adoption.

While ISS, in most parts of the world, is no longer involved directly with intercountry adoption, we continue to advocate for adoptees, biological family members, and international treaties designed to protect children outside of the care of their families. The work of the ISS Federation has been central to the development of best practices in intercountry adoption and to the drafting of guidelines on alternative care measures for children separated from their biological families. ISS-USA, and many of our partners around the world provide information and technical assistance to key stakeholders in the domestic and intercountry adoption process. It is our hope that each and every child has the opportunity to find a permanent family either at home or abroad. To learn more please visit and

Shame on U.S: The Stalled Ratification of The Convention on the Rights of the Child

As the year comes to an end, we naturally reflect upon all that we have accomplished, and all that we need to continue to strive for. We celebrate our victories and triumphs, no matter how big, or small, they may be. As we look forward to the New Year we commit to working harder to overcome those obstacles that prevent us from being able to fulfill all our goals and objectives. Our agency is no different in that regard.
We have done amazing work to promote the best interest of the child in all our work. We have served a record number of individuals and families through our work with the Repatriation Program, our intercountry case management services and research, training and technical assistance through the Arthur C. Helton Institute. Most importantly we have diligently promoted an open dialogue about children and families separated by international borders that is child centered and child focused. Yet we recognize that there are still formidable barriers to realizing that goal. Foremost among these barriers is the failure of the United States to implement the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC): the most important child focused international human rights’ treaty in force today. The United States is one of only three countries in the world (Somalia and South Sudan being the other two) that has not ratified the treaty and where continued staunch opposition to ratification is primarily based on misinformation and fear mongering.

So as the year comes to a close we would like to take this opportunity to talk about why the discussion of the CRC must shift from a misleading dialogue about parental rights to the central issue of the best interest of the child!

The CRC was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989 and became the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. The Convention was seen as the logical outcome of increasing attention to, and calls for remedies of, human rights violations around the world. The intent of the convention was to ensure that children were not excluded from the most basic of human rights including the right to family, the right to life and the right to be free from discrimination. More importantly, the Convention established the protection of the child’s physical, emotional and individual needs. The CRC was not conceptualized as an instrument for governments to interfere in the family. In fact, it was conceptualized to, in large part, protect the family, and provide crucial supports to families to keep them together. There is nothing in the treaty that implies that parents or legal guardians will be stripped of their authority over the child unless there is a compelling reason due to abuse or neglect. In fact, the role of the parent is noted in at least 19 of the 54 convention articles, and the word parent is mentioned over 30 times in the treaty. The notion that the treaty will prevent a parent from exercising their rights to educate their children, discipline their children, or prevent them from “teaching [their] moral standards” to their children is not only absurd it is factually incorrect. These kinds of claims are used to promote a political agenda that is blatantly anti-family under the guise of preventing the expansion of the “Welfare State.” Article 5 states that:

States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.

We believe that the danger of the anti-convention rhetoric is that it does, by default, undermine the very spirit of the Convention by moving the dialogue away from a child-centered one to one focused solely on the rights of the parents. This is, of course, the irony of this particular discussion. We cannot promote the best interest of the child because we are spending all our time talking about the adults’ rights. Is this not precisely why we need the Convention: so that the discussion about protecting children is child centered and not adult focused?

We believe that the heart of the CRC is Article 3 that states “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.” As we look forward to 2015, ISS-USA will continue to demand that all discussions about protecting and promoting the protection of children and families be framed by this single, monumentally important ideal.

Home for the Holidays: Family Finding for Children in Out of Home Care

Comedian George Burns once quipped, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” As November begins and we move inexorably towards the holidays, and the concomitant stress too often associated with the crush of family, we may think to ourselves that George was right. The ubiquitous stereotype of the family argument after, or even during, the Thanksgiving meal has been the fodder of many a comedy. Unrealistic expectations about the meal, or the décor, or your family feed the fire of discontent and lay the groundwork for disappointment. Alas, these are what are now referred to as “First World Problems:” relatively trivial concerns blown out of proportion when compared to the deep-seated, unrelenting problems faced by those in the developing world. Yet, for children separated from their families it matters not if they live in the “First World” or in a nation in the developing world: the idea that a happy family is across a border they cannot traverse is heartbreaking.
The past 11 months have given us far too many stories of children forcibly separated from their families, and/or their homes. Tens of thousands of children from Central American and Mexico entered the United States without the care or protection of their families. These children faced harrowing journeys led by parasitic coyotes preying on the intransigent poverty and fear of violence in the region and false promises of a “free ride” once the children entered the country. Increased attention to war orphans and children orphaned by disease, famine or other natural disasters has also heightened awareness about children being separated from their families. While these stories bring much needed attention to the problem of children traveling, living or simply surviving outside of the care of their family and garner the sympathy worthy of these tragic circumstances we seem to turn a blind eye to the same suffering and pain of separation experienced by children who are removed by a court from the care of a parent, or parents, because of abuse or neglect in the United States. These children have also been victimized directly by violence, or indirectly by abandonment or neglect. Is the story less tragic because it happened here? Is it less painful for the child that she was taken away by an agency charged with her care and placed in the home of a stranger? Does she not deserve the same rights as any other child to be reunited with her extended family when it is in her best interest?
ISS-USA has been a vocal advocate of family finding and engagement for years. Regardless of the circumstances that have brought a child to become separated from his family we must do better to locate and encourage the participation of his extended family in all plans about the child’s future when it is appropriate. A child who is in immigration proceedings is in as much need of family finding and engagement as a child in foster care. A child in foster care is in as much need of finding and connecting to her extended family as a child in a refugee camp.
We must not continue to make false distinctions about the severity of the circumstances within which a child finds himself as an excuse for, or barrier to, finding his family. It is only when it has been deemed inappropriate because of safety concerns for the child that a family should be excluded from participating in planning for the child’s short- or long-term future. Nor should we continue to administer a dual child welfare system in America that manages the domestic child welfare system differently from the federal system in place for unaccompanied minors.
Best practice in domestic child welfare mandates that every child’s family has the right to be notified when a child comes in to care, and provided with notice of their rights to participate in permanency planning. These same principles must be applied to every single child who comes in to care in our country, even those children who are here without proper immigration documents. No decision about what is in any child’s best interest can be made without input from their family and we must embrace the very broadest notion of what the term family means when we are looking for connections for a child in care.
As journalist Jane Howard said, “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” And there is no doubt that children need one more than anyone.

The Need for a Child-Focused Social Service Response to the Growing Number of Unaccompanied Children Entering the U.S.

A recent article outlining the Obama administration’s proposed increase in funding to house unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. Mexican border there was not a single mention of the social service needs of these children. The proposed procedure is to “house” children in army, or air force, barracks while “… a search is conducted for family, a sponsor or a foster parent who can care for them through their immigration court hearings, where many will apply for asylum or other special protective status.” Who, precisely, is going to conduct those searches? Who is going to work with the children to identify potential caregivers who are appropriate, safe, and committed to the child’s best interest?
Past case practice in family finding for unaccompanied alien minors, and decisions about when and with whom to place them, has proven to be woefully inadequate. Speed of placement has been the primary factor in deciding with whom to place a child rather than what is in the child’s best interest. With the growing number of unaccompanied children expected to skyrocket this year temporary housing solutions on military bases will not provide any incentive to locate and evaluate for the appropriateness of the potential care givers for these children. The push will be to get the kids out of the temporary placements as quickly as possible to make room for others.
The reason why this plan, like all those before it, will not fulfill its obligation to the vulnerable children it purports to protect is because the United States has not developed a comprehensive social service response to this humanitarian crisis. We have a fiscal response, a legal response, and an immigration response. But we don’t have a child protection response. The fact is that the work that needs to be done to protect these children, to reunite them with appropriate adult guardians, and evaluate what future placement is best for them must be done by trained social workers. There must be a coordinated effort to develop a social work workforce capable of undertaking these tasks.
Domestic social work is just beginning to truly understand the importance of family finding and engagement. We must build the capacity of our child protection social work staff to fully embrace family finding and remind them that these children are going to have family both in the United States and in the countries from where they arrived. It is imperative that family finding, and planning for these children’s future, be a cooperative effort between our domestic child protection system and social service agencies in the children’s countries of origin. There must be an organized cross-border social service response to the increasing number of unaccompanied children entering the U.S. that relies on best practices in child protection and child welfare established by international treaties.
We will not be able protect the vulnerable children entering our country in search of a safer and healthier life by simply increasing the existing funds for an inadequate system. We must increase the capacity of our child protection service system, the system we rely on to protect our own children, to provide services to promote the safety, well-being and permanency of every unaccompanied child crossing our border.

Read the official press release on the White House’s response to this crisis

Welcome to ISS-USA’s Family Routes Blog

Welcome to the International Social Service-USA branch’s blog, Family Routes. Each month we will write a blog post on a topic that is relevant to our work in particular or child welfare and child protection across borders in general. It is our hope that these timely and thoughtful posts will begin to raise awareness of the rapidly growing populations of individuals facing complex circumstances in need of social and legal services across international borders, and provoke discussion about best practice in accomplishing positive outcomes in every case we manage. Family Routes will trace the varying routes families must travel to be together and emphasize the importance of family roots to the well-being of children around the world. Many of the issues that we will be discussing are politically and socially contentious. Debates swirl around much of our daily work including intercountry adoption, international surrogacy, and the rights of parents versus the rights of the child. Regardless of the challenging nature of our discussions we view every case through one simple lens: what is in the child’s best interest. Our role in every journey a child must take to be a part of a permanent, loving and safe home will illustrate best practices in cross border social work and technical expertise. We welcome thoughtful responses to, and comments on, our blog.

90 years ago a group of forward thinking women determined that there was a critical need for social services for migrating families that began before they left their country of origin and continued after they arrived in their new home. The radical notion that coordinated services across international borders might decrease the number of families permanently separated is the hallmark of the work of ISS-USA and the ISS Federation. Today the reasons that children and families become separated are far more complex than our fore-mothers imagined. Our work no longer focuses just on families affected by migration. Nonetheless, the bedrock of the idea still supports our work and the work of the ISS Federation. There is no less need for cross-border social services than there was in 1926. Things have just gotten more complicated. ISS-USA continually searches for innovative and sustainable solutions in the best interest of children. On any given day the ISS-USA case management team handles dozens of cases involving children in need of protection or reunification with their families, adult adoptees searching for their biological families, American citizen children or adults in crisis in a foreign country who need assistance in returning home, and a growing number of requests for technical expertise on a wide range of cross border child welfare and protection issues. Our role is to provide expert assistance following best practices in social work to support outcomes in every individual’s best interest. Each month we will include actual case data to illustrate the issue under discussion.

We look forward to your comments and insights.
(Special thanks to Spearfish Innovation for their expertise in assisting us with naming our new blog.