Author Archives: Felicity Northcott

4 Ways Social Service Providers Can Help Separated Families Following the Termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

Over the 93-year history of the International Social Service network, we have witnessed numerous shifts in immigration policy, often causing the separation of families across international borders. Throughout these shifts, we have maintained our focus on reconnecting children and families separated across borders to needed social services by keeping the best interest of the child at the center of our decision making. The recent termination of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for El Salvadorans is one example of an immigration policy that will disrupt families and require us to implement repatriation and reintegration procedures for families being returned.

TPS was first granted in 2001 to citizens of El Salvador living in the US. Today, U.S.-born children of Salvadoran TPS holders range from zero to 17 years old and now we’re left asking, what will happen to the thousands of them when their caregivers lose their legal status? What about the outcome for those families choosing to stay together and returning to a country they haven’t seen in years or decades? These are questions that must be addressed by social workers and child welfare organizations in order to meet the needs of children and families facing troublesome situations.

While some children and youth may choose to stay in the U.S. to continue their education, they risk losing the stability of parental care that is crucial to academic success. Relatives or other caregivers will be asked to take on the financial and care taking responsibilities of additional children, straining already limited resources. Without additional supports, some children and youth will lose the security that fosters the ongoing development of positive social and emotional skills. This increases the risk of children entering into the U.S. child welfare system.

Families returning to the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) are facing immense challenges ranging from economic security, neighborhood safety, integration into schools, integration into the workforce, accessing medical systems, and adjusting to community life in an unfamiliar place. ISS-USA has seen an increase in requests for services in the Northern Triangle as returning parents seek custody of their children in the U.S., and as state child protection agencies encounter children with deported parents. By working with government and non-government partners in El Salvador and elsewhere in the region, ISS-USA helps these families reconnect in a way that is safe, well-planned, and sustainable.

One example of the services ISS-USA provides for separated families is through brothers Joaquin and Nicolas, who were born in the US. Their father, a Mexican citizen, facing fears of deportation and fewer work opportunities decided to relocate to Mexico ahead of what he fears is imminent deportation. He left the boys in the care of their mother, who had a history of substance abuse. Soon after their father left, Joaquin and Nicolas were taken into care due to neglect and abuse from their mother who had returned to using. ISS-USA helped contact the father and arrange for a home study in Mexico, where he found work at a factory where his English skills have proven to be an asset. Joaquin and Nicolas were returned to their father’s care, are enrolled in school, and are adjusting well to their new home.

Like Joaquin and Nicolas, children and families need social service help on both sides of the border to plan their return and access needed services upon arrival. Here are four ways social workers and social service providers can support families in this situation:

1) Help identify families at risk of separation and support their access to reliable, up to date information to help them create a plan for a disruption. This includes assigning temporary custody in the event of detention or deportation.

2) In the event that children are taken into protective custody following the detention or deportation of a parent, social workers can help identify family resources both domestically and internationally to support permanency planning in the best interest of the child. The ISS network regularly locates and notifies family members overseas when a child is taken into care and helps engage them in permanency planning. Deported or non-custodial parents have a right to participate in permanency planning of their children, including requesting placement with them in their country of return as part of concurrent planning.

3) Ensure the homes and caretakers to whom children will be placed are safe and appropriate, and there are mechanisms in place to support the long term integration into family and community life. ISS partners help identify schools, medical facilities, behavioral and mental health providers, and other community resources to which the child (and family) would re-locate. Assessments conducted by local social workers provide US judges and family courts with child-specific information to make informed decisions.

4) Support family reunification and reintegration through ongoing case management and communication with service providers in the country of departure and the country of arrival. ISS partners can help connect families to resources in their local communities to sustain placement and prevent further separation.

As advocates, we can demonstrate the reasons why extending TPS is a good for children, families, and communities but as social service providers, we must be prepared to accompany families as they make difficult decisions without imposing our own assumptions. By ignoring the reality of many forced returns or dismissing a voluntary decision to rejoin family, we are missing an opportunity to protect thousands of children.

The ISS Global Network Shares a Rich History of Working with Migrants

As we acknowledge International Migrants Day, it is important to note the complexities of the world where more people than ever live on the move or in a country they were not born. These individuals and families are fleeing personal violence, state sponsored genocide, poverty, religious or ethnic persecution, and starvation. The simple adage that people are moving for a “better life” is not, and never was applicable to the large scale movement of people.

We must acknowledge the constant physical and mental danger that forces people to leave behind all they have and know, in order to protect themselves and their families from the growing threats of all forms of extremism, climate change, failed economic development, and violence. More importantly, we must support international cooperation to ensure the safe passage and integration of migrants into new communities. This is, and has always been, the purpose of the International Social Service network.

Twenty-five years after the founding of the International Migration Service (later changed to International Social Service) in 1924, an internal survey of the agency included the statement:

Normal movement of population, displacement due to war,
political or religious oppression, international marriages,
all of these create a need for people and agencies to work
together across borders and frontiers to prevent the
discouragement and suffering which contribute to break-down in
family unity, waste of individual potentialities, and
international ill-will.

More importantly and apropos of the current political climate in the United States, the founding documents assert, “(m)any laws and regulations have been enacted without consideration of their possible effects on human well-being.”

As a social service network, International Social Service’s primary concern is the physical and emotional safety of our clients; all of whom are, for a variety of reasons, separated from their families across an international border. Our unique and enduring legacy since our founding in 1924, is the ability to cooperate with our partners in dozens of countries to achieve that goal. The network currently operates in 130 countries and serves over 75,000 individuals and families each year. We advocate for the inclusion of immigrants, refuges and asylees in our communities, and for their social and emotional needs to be met alongside their legal battles.

The theme of this year’s International Migrants Day is “safe migration in a world on the move.” This is a time when international cooperation among agencies, governments, and individuals is more crucial than ever.

Reframing False Dichotomies: Child Protection is Not Black and White

The history of child welfare in this country has been rife with persistent dichotomies about outcomes and best practices in child protection. These “all or nothing” approaches to child protection are dangerous in a number of ways. The language about what is “best” often ignores what is best for a particular child. These arguments rely on invoking an aggregate group of children and completely ignoring the individual child with a set of unique needs.

The idea that “all children should be deinstitutionalized” does not allow for a useful discussion about children who need long-term, in-patient or other institutional care because they are a danger to themselves or others, or because their particular needs are so complex that they cannot safely be cared for in a homebased setting. It is better to look at what resources each particular child needs and ensure that those resources are readily available, of high quality, and designed specifically to promote the safety and well-being of each individual child. This could mean increasing in-home care for some children whose families, with support, can provide the very best care for that child. It can also mean that viable out-of-home options must be created when the child’s needs cannot be met in the home. Moving forward, we must determine, in a consistent and productive way, which child needs which services and how we can best redirect resources to promote the best outcome for an individual child.

Are all institutions that house children inherently bad? Should we abolish all institutional forms of care for children? What happens to children who cannot stay in their biological family or safely remain in foster or kinship care? These are the questions that must be asked if we are to take a truly child-centered approach to protecting vulnerable children. Our job is to ensure that each child is placed in the best setting to promote the safe and sustainable growth of mind and body. We are not promoting some Draconian idea of the poor house or the orphanage. We are promoting an open discussion about what to do when a child needs an institutional setting to meet his or her needs.

We are in full agreement that there are far too many instances where out of home care settings are far more dangerous for a child than remaining in a family setting. Whether it is unscrupulous orphanages that are trafficking children in Haiti or an ill-maintained “children’s home” in Guatemala that cost the lives of forty girls, the answer is not to reject the idea of institutionalization because of hazardous practices. The answer is that we need to examine what resources are needed to provide appropriate institutional care, monitor outcomes, and ensure that children are not languishing in out of home care.

Assisting Vulnerable Children on World Mental Health Day 2017

In recognition of World Mental Health Day, we want to address the issue of protecting and supporting the emotional and psycho-social well-being of all children. Recently, there have been numerous incidents and situations placing vulnerable children in untenable situations that are a direct threat to their emotional and mental health. While children are remarkably resilient, they are not immune to emotional upheaval, and failing to address issues caused by this upheaval will only contribute to further generations of unresolved trauma and pain. When children’s psycho-social needs are not addressed in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event or when there are untreated on-going stressors in the child’s life, we run the risk of the child never fully recovering. The mental health needs of children around the world deserve our attention and willingness to adapt services and treatment models within an ever-changing social and political environment.

Unaccompanied Minors: While the number of children arriving as unaccompanied minors in the United States has decreased, little efforts have been made to provide key services to support the emotional well-being of those who are here. A narrow focus on the legal needs of these children overshadows the lack of comprehensive psycho-social services to address post-traumatic stress resulting from the arduous journey to the United States, witnessing violence in their homes and communities, separation from supportive family members, and the complicated process of family reunification once in the United States. Legal counsel can review children’s cases to apply for adjustments to immigration status, a process that requires the child to prove abuse, neglect, or abandonment. This frequently means asking young children to recount their traumas multiple times to court officials. It is not enough to secure a visa for children who have experienced violence in their home country, been exposed to violence and trauma during migration, or whose families are too fearful, unable, or unwilling to care for them when they arrive in the United States. Once we acknowledge the trauma these young victims have experienced, we must be held accountable to assist their access to free psychological and social work services.

Children whose parent(s) face deportation: Under the current administration, there is no humane deportation policy in place to protect mixed status families from prolonged, painful separation. The stress on undocumented parents and their children is enormous. These children face being separated from their parent(s), falling into poverty, social isolation, and potential placement in a non-relative foster home or institution. The cruelty of indiscriminate detention and deportation of parents means that their children live in constant fear. Fear of deportation also poses a risk within the home, as parents fearful of detection are at risk of seeking fewer services for themselves, including accessing medical care or mental health support. Children born, raised, and educated in the United States with full citizenship status can be faced with immense guilt around their own privileges and decisions to stay in the United States while their parents and families are deported. These stressors need to be recognized and addressed. There must be far more resources and attention provided to these families to decrease the stress surrounding potential or realized deportations.

Children who have experienced a large scale natural disaster: Millions of children around the world have experienced emotionally devastating natural and man-made disasters in the past years. Whether it is children in Puerto Rico or other Caribbean Islands, witnessing the massive destruction of their own homes and often, their entire islands, is devastating. Additionally, millions of children are still being exposed to war and genocide in Syria, Cambodia, and other conflict-ridden areas of the World. These children suffer from extreme emotional distress. Most importantly, most of these children will not see a quick end to the chaos and upheaval in their lives. They may be without safe housing, clean water, access to healthcare and/or education for many months or years. While we must take care of their most basic needs, we must also find ways to address their on-going psycho-social needs. We need mental health and social service professionals on the ground working with these children and their families so that they can find safe and appropriate ways to express their grief, anxiety, confusion, and insecurity.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental health is an essential part of children’s overall health. A child’s emotional state has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school and in society. It is our responsibility to provide every resource a child needs to grow up to be a happy, active member of their community.

An Overseas Adventure Becomes a Nightmare

Imagine this: You are a U.S. Citizen who moves overseas to start a new adventure with your spouse and four children. That adventure quickly becomes a nightmare when your partner becomes angry and abusive, causing you and your children to flee for safety. Your spouse has control of your finances, leaving you destitute. You need to return to the U.S. to seek safety, but without family or finances to help you, you are scared, alone, and unsure of how to get back.

Now, imagine the added complication of worrying whether you and your children will be allowed to enter the U.S. because you are fleeing from a country on the U.S. travel ban list.

This is the scenario that **Tina and her children faced before being helped by the Repatriation program.

Repatriating Tina Back to the U.S. During the Travel Ban

The U.S. Repatriation program provides assistance to eligible people who are destitute, severely ill, or suffering from psychological disorders and who need to return to the United States. The program is established to help the most vulnerable who have no other resources to do this on their own. Returning U.S. Citizens are expected to pay back their travel and assistance loans as soon as they can. Although the repatriation program can provide assistance in the form of a loan for up to 90 days, many individuals and families are able to become independent within an average of 30 days or less with the help of their case managers.

Samaritas Collaborates to Resettle Tina

Providing cross-border services to vulnerable returning populations is impossible without effective partners in the state where a client is returning. International Social Service-USA, the U.S. repatriation partner of the U.S. government, coordinates services between the sending U.S. consulates overseas and the state appointed partner. In this particular scenario, the partner appointed by the State of Michigan, where our client was returning to, is Samaritas.

Samaritas is the largest refugee resettlement, foster care, and adoption organization in Michigan. “Samaritas has 40 programs in 70 cities across Michigan, making it the second or third largest social service organization in Michigan,” stated Mihaela Mitrofan, Program Manager, New Americans. “With a diverse, multilingual staff of recent as well as born and raised Americans, there is wide coverage across the state and vast expertise working with children, families and adult in a variety of capacities. Samaritas is an ideal repatriation program partner,” stated Julie Gilbert Rosicky, Executive Director.

When Tina and her children were scheduled to arrive in Detroit earlier this year, Samaritas appointed a case manager to meet them at the airport. Because there was some concern about whether this American family would be allowed to enter the U.S. from a Middle Eastern country, International Social Service and Samaritas caseworkers were on standby to do whatever was needed to assist if the family was detained or if the return trip was delayed or rescheduled.

Fortunately, Tina and her children arrived as scheduled and were greeted by a caseworker who also happened to be from the Middle Eastern country from where they were fleeing. She provided them with familiar food as well as warm clothes upon their arrival to help them adjust from a warm climate to Detroit in the dead of winter. Samaritas case workers graciously picked them up in the early evening from the airport and took them to a family shelter, where they stayed temporarily until more permanent arrangements could be made.

Caseworkers Help Tina Acclimate to a New Environment

The caseworker worked with Tina to find employment, counseling for victims of domestic violence, permanent housing, and a school where the children could be enrolled. One of the children had a learning disability, so the case manager helped Tina find local services to address the learning disability. The case manager, having gone through the resettlement process as a former refugee when she was a child, formed an immediate bond with this family, which still continues long after services were concluded. Together, they developed a case management plan to help get them back on their feet as quickly as possible.

See more information about the U.S. Repatriation Program.
See more information about Samaritas here.

**Names and some details have been changed in this account to protect the confidentiality and anonymity of the family involved.

Alone and Mentally Ill in a Foreign Country: Bringing a Vulnerable Son Home

risky business

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In our work to safely reunite people across borders, we often help vulnerable individuals return to the U.S. from overseas when they are experiencing mental health issues. Navigating life with a mental health condition is difficult. Our cross-border services can help, as they did in Matthew’s case.

A Bright Young Man Suffers From Mental Illness
Matthew, an intelligent, hardworking, and successful young man, got married after college and started a painting business. At 26 years old, Matthew started experiencing delusions and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although he functioned well for several years by taking medication and seeing a doctor, one day, Matthew’s mental health issues worsened to the point where he felt compelled to seek asylum in a foreign country.

The Cross-Border Challenge: Michael Vanishes Without a Trace
Nothing would prepare Matthew’s mother, Raina, and his wife, Sarah, for the day that Matthew went missing. They knew that Matthew had traveled to Washington D.C., but they couldn’t find any evidence of where he went afterwards. They were able to locate Matthew’s abandoned hotel room and truck in the hotel garage, both of which still had his belongings in them. After scanning credit card purchases and having conversations with their friends, the police, and others in D.C., Raina and Sarah deduced that Matthew had flown to Oslo, Norway.

Panic and Uncertainty Across Borders
Raina worked tirelessly to find Matthew and make sure he was okay. The Embassy checked on Matthew, who discovered that the Salvation Army was caring for him but could not convince him to voluntarily receive mental health treatment. Raina was faced with an impossible decision: should she travel alone to Norway to try to persuade Matthew to come home, or should she stay in the U.S. and keep checking on him? Afraid that seeing her might further escalate Michael’s already fragile state, she chose to remain in the U.S. and monitor the situation from there. Raina was in frequent contact with the U.S. Consulate and the Salvation Army, who were her allies in keeping tabs on Matthew.

Raina’s voice broke when she described her helplessness and panic after she viewed Matthew’s YouTube videos that he posted while in Norway. “Sometimes they were ok, or just nonsensical, but other times he just seemed to be getting worse and worse.”

Eventually, Matthew had overstayed his visit in Norway. As a U.S. Citizen, the Norwegian government and the U.S. Consulate could set about a chain of events to bring Matthew home through immigration enforcement in Norway.

The U.S. Repatriation Program: Helping Matthew Get Home
International Social Service, a partner of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, coordinates between consulates overseas and partners in each U.S. state to help destitute and mentally ill U.S. citizens safely return to the U.S. from overseas. Our casework team facilitates communication between countries, coordinates travel, and links people to services such as medical or mental health care, housing, food, and employment, upon their return. When resettled, repatriates are expected to pay back the costs of their return and the costs of services. Most are reintegrated fairly quickly and are back on their feet in an average of 45 days.

“You just have to keep on trying until you get him home. And thank god for all the good people out there that were willing to help”

— Raina

Reintegration: Getting Matthew the Best Possible Care
The consular officer in Oslo and an International Social Service caseworker created a repatriation plan suited to Matthew’s mental health needs. The repatriation team took Raina’s wishes into account; they worked hard to place Matthew in a hospital where he had a treatment history and already knew the doctors and nurses well. Mental health experts in Norway ensured Matthew was stable enough to travel. After arriving in the U.S., Matthew was hospitalized immediately so he could receive psychological care. Raina advocated for Matthew to stay beyond the hospital’s 24-hour period so he could receive thorough treatment that he desperately needed, and eventually, she was able to secure a court order to do so. Raina hopes Matthew will remain stable, but she knows that a relapse is likely. Although the journey home was intensely stressful, Raina is relieved that repatriation services could reunite them and get Matthew the care that he desperately needed.

Easing Uncertainty in Stressful Cross-Border Situations
“Matthew is lucky,” stated the Executive Director of International Social Service, Julie Rosicky. “The U.S. Repatriation Program provides assistance to close to 1,000 people each year. There are many other adults struggling with mental illness that run into trouble in foreign countries, and they don’t have a friend or family member to help them, to advocate on their behalf, or to check on them once they are here. Raina is one extraordinary woman, and her story really touched me. It underscores how important it is for our organization to provide these cross-border services. It’s so daunting to figure out how things work in your own country, let alone a foreign country. But knowing that we can help in these situations and that there are Moms like Raina willing to fight for their children makes our work all the more worthwhile.”
Mental Health Awareness (600 x 314)

We encourage you to view tools and resources to help raise awareness, end stigma, and become informed about mental health issues and risk factors by visiting National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America.

Social Workers Bring Hope – Part 2: The Importance of Investing in Child Protection

Social Work and Silos

In the international child protection field, people tend to work in silos. Some may work on child trafficking, intercountry adoption, or cross-border migration, but all of these topics overlap. Events in Guatemala provide evidence of how content-specific interventions don’t go far enough to address root problems. Three critical events over the past 10 years: the closing of Guatemala’s intercountry adoption program, the influx of unaccompanied children to Mexico and the U.S., and the recent horrific fire at Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción – an orphanage in Guatemala, all demonstrate that breaking down silos and investing in a comprehensive child protection system is necessary for future generations of children in Guatemala to survive.

Intercountry Adoption Gone Wrong

Intercountry adoption scandals in Guatemala revealed that many children were being adopted in nefarious ways: some were kidnapped from poor mothers, and others were bought in exchange for large sums of money from families to “voluntarily relinquish” said children. Guatemala then passed new adoption legislation to regulate intercountry adoption, implement safeguards of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, and shut down their intercountry adoption program.

Despite funding assistance to improve domestic and international child welfare and adoption practices, Guatemala’s child protection systems remain mired in inefficiencies. Several years ago, International Social Service-USA experienced firsthand the challenges in the country’s domestic adoption system. We worked on a case that involved several U.S. children in Guatemala’s child protection system who were being considered for placement with an aunt and uncle that lived in the U.S. Unfortunately, a series of court delays and hurdles prolonged a placement decision. Nearly three years later, the children remain in Guatemala’s state care, and their fate is still in the hands of Guatemala’s courts. Intercountry adoption scandals and inefficiencies in family court are just one part of the story.

Child Exodus- Child Migration Influx

humanitarian aid

In 2014, the influx of migrating children from Guatemala and other regions to the U.S. hit an all-time high. This was due in part to the prevalence of violence, child abuse, and neglect, as well as the lack of strong child protection infrastructures. The fixes Guatemala made to their child protection systems in response to the intercountry adoption scandals were not close to enough to protect children overall. Large flows of children have continued since 2014, and addressing root causes of migration remains as critical as ever.

The Harm in Institutional-Based Care

Most recently, the world learned of the horrific fire that claimed the lives of 40 girls who were living in an institution run by the Guatemalan government. What makes this horrifying situation even worse is that some parents had chosen to place their children at this facility. They believed that by doing so, they were protecting them from dangers at home and were preventing their children from the violence that many experience on the journey through Mexico and into the United States.

Invest in Social Work – Across Silos & Borders

Unfortunately, investments in the region typically focus on economic growth, foreign investment, and security rather than social work or child protection.

If social work and child protection became priorities, the Northern Triangle and Mexico regions could build the capacity of their local social work systems. This financial support in the region would mean more children would remain with their families, and fewer children would be killed, abducted, trafficked, abandoned, abused, or flee to the U.S. without documentation.

What would it look like if we invested in social workers and child welfare in Guatemala?

  • Families in danger of breaking apart would be helped, trained, and supervised by a social worker who could coordinate services, cash assistance, or family-based care.
  • Children unable to remain with their families would live with other kin or in foster care, where they would be under the careful and regulated supervision of social workers within an organized child welfare system.
  • The child welfare system would be adequately equipped with lawyers and social workers trained in both domestic and cross-border issues who could make timely decisions in the best interest of children. By arming them with knowledge, they could better protect children from trafficking and promote outcomes in the best interest of the child in intercountry adoption and migration.
  • The number of government institutions would decrease dramatically or disappear entirely. Specialized and well-supervised care facilities would remain for certain children who, even under the best of circumstances, are unable to live in a family because they require extraordinary supervision.
  • Guatemala would have a DNA database to help individuals find their biological relatives in Guatemala and overseas. Social workers could provide appropriate support during and after this process while facilitating searches and reunions.
  • Child protection systems in Guatemala could extend their reach and work with entities worldwide to help children and families separated across borders due to trafficking, migration, adoption or abuse and neglect. International Social Service partners could assist by providing case management and linking people to information, legal support, and social services.


These different events offer insight into the weaknesses that exist in child protection systems. They also help us understand just how important it is to enhance child protection systems to improve outcomes for all children – whether they are being adopted, living in state care, a victim of human trafficking or migrating to another region.

Social Workers Get things Done, Despite Overwhelming Challenges in Protecting Children

Many recent events have emphasized the need for investment in the social service workforce. My trip to India to participate in the launch of a social work training program was one event that highlighted the importance of this profession and how critical social workers are in making positive changes in child care systems.

India: On the Road to Alternative Care

India children
I recently visited Delhi, India to participate in the International Symposium on Family Strengthening at Jamia Millia Islamia University. This two-day symposium convened professors, social workers, early child development students, and leaders in government and nongovernment sectors who are concerned about protecting children, especially those living outside of family care. The symposium celebrated the inauguration of India’s first National Resource Centre in Foster Care. The Centre is headed by Dr. Meenai, a well-respected social work professor who has a wealth of expertise in the field of child development.

Madhavi, head of the UK-based foster care agency, Liberty Fostering, enthusiastically explained the details of recruiting, screening, and providing ongoing training and support for foster families, as well as the placement of children and the supervision of placements.

I watched the audience pose serious questions such as:

  • How does one deal with foster families that are different castes or religions from the child, the biological family, or the social worker?
  • Could fostering be accepted as a legitimate way to assist vulnerable children, or would there be a stigma associated with it that would prevent families from wanting to get involved?
  • Who and how would we begin to recruit families? Who would be responsible for and supervise them?
  • How could a program like this be funded?
  • Do foster parents get paid to provide care?
  • How would foster care fit into the limited existing child protection framework?

These questions highlighted the perceived challenges of achieving complete child protection systems with a well-functioning foster care component like what Madhavi described based on her work in the UK. These questions also identified how India will need to adapt its current “best practice” models to incorporate the unique challenges that castes, religion, and other cultural nuances pose in the treatment and placement of children and in the development of alternative care solutions.

Limited Options for Children

I also visited a Child Welfare Committee office, which determines outcomes for children who are referred by the police, by a family, or in some cases by a child. In the office, a review panel consisting of a psychologist, social worker, educator, special education expert, and lawyer were all discussing different situations with families. That day, I saw two little boys who had been found at a train station who were waiting for their parents to arrive. Another family was there to bring their thirteen year old daughter home, who had run away.

Members of the review panel did their best to understand and assess each child’s unique circumstances, home conditions, and potential risks. Unfortunately, the review panel did not have the capacity to send social workers to visit each child’s home or to gather more information about the child’s home environment. If it was determined that a child should not return home, the only other option was to place the child in institutional-based care. In cases of alleged sexual abuse, girls are often pressured by their families to return home and not press charges, because placing the alleged relative abuser in jail could cause the family to lose their only or major source of income. This experience visiting the Child Welfare Committee Office underscored that in order to develop more family-based care options for children, the system would first need to enhance its ability to evaluate the child’s needs, safety, and placement options when determining if the child should be returned home, placed in a family, or taken to an institutional facility.

Passionate and Dedicated Social Workers Transform Systems of Care

Finally, I had the privilege of visiting the Centre of Excellence in Alternative Care, India, which is led by two incredibly dedicated professionals, Vasundhra, lawyer and Managing Director, and Ian Anand Forber Pratt, National Program Director. Both Vasundhra and Ian’s positions are funded by foreign Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the U.K and U.S. respectively. However, strict laws in India prohibit the use of foreign funding for programming in India, which means Ian and Vasundhra must use their own personal resources for travel, supplies, and other programmatic activities. Despite these obstacles, Ian and Vasundhra are driven by true passion for their mission to develop alternative care throughout India. They both work closely with the government, Jamia Millia Islamia University, other NGOs in India, and global organizations to encourage the development of tools and resources to help India provide alternative care for children who live outside of families. Ian, an adoptee himself from Calcutta, also counsels Indian adoptees and families searching for their origins.

India will face numerous challenges as it seeks to build its child protection infrastructures, including a quickly growing population of children who need protection. However, change is starting with dedicated people and in particular, driven social workers. Dr. Meenai and his colleagues are training future social workers to understand a broader spectrum of care options for children and families. These future social workers will be the ones to build this needed infrastructure.

Similarly, Ian and Vasundhra are making progress to implement stronger child protection systems and family-based care options by developing systems, working with individuals, and collaborating with legal and government stakeholders. Their tasks seem daunting, but developing systems often begins with a small group of individuals who can roll up their sleeves and get things done. Social workers and partners can make lasting change when they have an unlimited passion for, and vision of, a world where children are protected from harm and can grow up in safe, loving families.

Follow our blog to stay tuned about how social workers are changing and will continue to change the fate of children in Guatemala and the U.S.

Lion: A Tale of Intercountry Adoption

In Search of Happier Beginnings and Joyful Endings

What if our number one priority was the well-being of children across the globe?

I recently saw Lion, a film that tells the story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy who is separated from his mother, brother and sister in India. Saroo is quickly adopted by an Australian couple and raised in Hobart, Tasmania with his new family. The film touches on topics I’ve been working on for the past 25 years of my career, including in my current position as Executive Director of International Social Service, USA. I was curious to see how realistically Lion would portray these issues.

Lion addresses some of the complexities of the intense bonds between biological children and their parents and siblings; between adoptive children and their parents and siblings; and between adoptive and biological families. It also shows how easily children can become separated from their families and how difficult it is to reunite them in countries where child protection infrastructures are in the early stages of development. The film portrays how vulnerable children can be when they are separated from their families through a brief shot of street children trying to find a safe place to sleep, to a shot of those who intend to harm them such as the police and child traffickers, and through depictions of people who are indifferent to lost, hungry, dirty children.

Lion‘s Nod to Intercountry Adoption Challenges

We, as child protection experts, have struggled for decades to figure out how to properly care for children who lack the support and protection of families. Starting In the late 1940s and early 1950s, intercountry adoption evolved into a popular care option; families in countries such the U.S., Canada, Australia and across Europe became eager to adopt children from poor, war-torn, or communist countries including India, Haiti, South Korea, Russia and China, to name a few. The film briefly acknowledges some of the challenges surrounding intercountry adoption. Lion shows the limited methods of searching for family, the reasons why some families choose to adopt, the lack of transparency in sharing medical, mental health and behavior histories of adoptive children, the experience of raising a child with disabilities, and the fear that adoptive families have about their capacity to support their children.

Saroo’s Journey

In Lion, we watch the adorable and brave Saroo (Sunny Pawar) grow up into a seemingly well-adjusted, bright, young man (Dev Patel). Then, we see Saroo fall apart when memories from his early childhood haunt him: he struggles with the reality that he has another family, is confused about his cultural identity and grapples with the fact that he does not know how to find his family and if they are alive or dead. We feel his growing panic, pain, and deep-seated desire “to know.” Any parent who has lost track of his/her child in the grocery store, and any child who has lost his/her parents in a crowd, understands this sense of relentless urgency to reconnect. This must be a fraction of the pain Saroo felt for more than 16 years. We watch this panic paralyze Saroo, alienating him from his friends, girlfriend and family.

What if?

What if Saroo’s mother had enough money to support her family? What if Saroo and his brother and sister attended school? What if Saroo only had to work before or after school near the family’s house? Saroo and his brother would NOT have had to stray so far from home to earn money to help feed his family, and Saroo would never have become separated from his family. Investing in FAMILY STRENGTHENING, by providing cash assistance, employment, parenting training/support and education for children, is critical to prevent family separation and to protect the long-term well-being of children. Unfortunately, very few countries invest enough (if at all) in the full range of family strengthening activities. Countries that do have some of the highest indicators of child well-being. Countries that don’t, including the United States, pay far more for the costly consequences of family separation. This puts children at greater risk of being trafficked, abused, neglected, harmed, and becoming involved with criminal behavior including gangs and terrorist groups in adolescence and adulthood.

How Investing in Child Protection Systems Could Have Changed Saroo’s Life

What if, in addition to family strengthening, we invest in child protection systems that, together with legal systems, provide the framework to care and protect vulnerable children? What if we support the development and enhancement of child protection services, including birth registration, social services, and training for social workers? Then, family separation would be a solvable problem. Building social work capacity to prevent and address consequences of separation is critical to the health and well-being of all children. The ability to work across jurisdictions would better protect the historic numbers of people on the move today who are crossing, or separated by, borders.
Having enhanced child protection systems would enable trained social workers, like those in the International Social Service network, to talk to Saroo, search for his family, and reunite them. Saroo could be linked with reintegration services that would ensure a smooth transition. Social workers could visit him and his family and continue to connect them to the resources they need to keep Saroo safe within his family and community.

While we all like joyful endings, the bottom line is that we need to work much harder on HAPPY BEGINNINGS. It’s wonderful when people reunite after a long separation. But it’s even more wonderful when those bonds are not severed for long or are never severed in the first place.

Stay tuned for updates from my upcoming trip to India to visit my esteemed colleague Ian Anand Forber Pratt, MSW, National Program Director, Centre of Excellence in Alternative Care of Children (India) Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI). While there, I will attend and speak at the National Symposium on Family Strengthening: Deconstructing Alternative Practices in the Current Legislative Framework and learn about the many wonderful ways in which India is developing its child protection systems.

Julie Rosicky, Executive Director
International Social Service, USA Branch Inc.

11 Key Takeaways from The Ties That Bind


The key finding of the 6th annual International Social Service conference is that we have failed to do our due diligence in protecting children in our country. Through the creation of benign euphemisms, we have trivialized key circumstances that threaten the safety, well-being and permanency of children within our borders. We have emphasized the rights of parents and other adults at the expense of protecting our kids.

The growing problem of parents abducting their children is not called kidnapping, or treated as a violent crime against children. We call the abandonment of adopted children “re-homing” and fail to prosecute it as a crime. The advancement of reproductive technologies has placed primacy on the prospective parents’ rights to produce a biologically-related child with no thought given to the product of these technologies; the child. Finally, we have created a parallel, and less useful, child protection system for children who enter our borders without appropriate adult care. The result is that unaccompanied children do not get the same protection and care as our citizen children and are at great risk for violence, trafficking and deportation without adequate pre- and post-arrival services.

The key issues and actions that must be addressed by the next administration include:

  1. Create a National Resource Center on Cross-Border Child Protection that will provide technical assistance and training for judicial and legal stakeholders as well as public and private child/family services providers on best practices in child protection/welfare cases that have a cross-border dimension.
  2. Support the creation and passage of a Federal law that defines the re-homing of adopted children as child abandonment and includes strong penalties for perpetrators.
  3. Support the creation and passage of new laws to protect the rights of children who are the product of Assisted Reproductive Technologies including surrogacy, donor conception and embryo adoption.
  4. Mandate donor registration on a National Donor Registry.
  5. Develop, and financially support, repatriation and reintegration programs for children and families removed from the U.S. through immigration enforcement.
  6. Invest in upgrading The Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) to include child outcomes both for children within the U.S. and for children who are placed with relatives overseas. States must comply with reporting requirements, and there should be penalties for states who who refuse to comply with these requirements.
  7. Advocate for consistent home study assessment standards to ensure all children, including unaccompanied children being placed with sponsors, foster children, children placed in kinship care, and children placed with relatives overseas, are placed in homes that have been thoroughly and properly vetted.
  8. Increase funding for family-based services to prepare adoptive, foster or kinship families, and international sponsors for parenting children. Create support services for families to prevent or appropriately address disruptions and prepare for reunification after extended separations.
  9. Create stronger exit controls to prevent parental child abduction.
  10. Invest in enhanced parental child abduction prevention programs.
  11. Advocate that states create statutes to treat parental child abduction with the same urgency as stranger abductions.