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.