National News

Family Separation: It’s a Problem for U.S. Citizens, Too

Posted June 22, 2018 1:47 p.m. EDT

In May, when the outrage over the separation of migrant children from their parents was beginning to boil, President Donald Trump’s secretary for Homeland Security shrugged off accusations that it was a “form of state terror.” After all, she said, “We do it every day in every part of the country.”

On this point, the secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, is right. Family separation is a fact of life in the United States, happening hundreds — if not thousands — of times a day. “In the United States,” she said, “we call that law enforcement.”

Advocates for criminal justice reform have argued that Americans appalled at the treatment of immigrant families at the border should realize that prosecutors and the police routinely separate children from their parents. It happens when parents or children are arrested, it happens when incarcerated women give birth — it can even be triggered when a pregnant woman fails a mandatory drug test, or when a child skips school. It comes with no warning, sometimes in the middle of the night.

“I see all these progressive mayors and governors getting up and grandstanding about how awful it is,” said David Menschel, a criminal defense lawyer in Portland, Oregon, of the impassioned response to the Trump administration’s practices. “Well, if it’s so awful, why are we doing it so much?”

Unlike with the more than 2,300 migrant children that the government has taken from their parents since the crackdown, American parents may not be faced with the fear that the government has lost track of their sons and daughters altogether. But experts say cleaving families apart is still damaging.

Here are a number of ways the government separates families:

— Incarcerating parents

A quarter of a million American children are estimated to have a single mother in jail, where the majority of detainees committed a minor offense or have been arrested and are awaiting trial, according to the most recent data from the mid-2000s. Another 150,000 had a mother in prison. Since then, the number of incarcerated women has risen. Many more children have incarcerated fathers — 1 in 4 black children can expect to have their father incarcerated before they turn 14.

Most of these children are sent to live with a family member. But children with incarcerated mothers are five times more likely to end up in foster care than those with incarcerated fathers. And as with the migrant children, some have the potential to be lost. In a 2017 investigation, The Dallas Morning News found that children whose parents were behind bars had slept in state offices, run away from foster homes and, in one case, left to be looked after by their 12-year-old sister. In most communities, the newspaper reported, “No one in the criminal justice system is responsible for the safety of children whose mothers go to jail.”

Women who give birth while incarcerated are also usually separated from their babies. Recent years have seen the creation of a handful of prison nurseries, where female inmates can bond with their babies for an extended period of time. But much more common are policies that require a woman to part with her newborn after 24 hours or a handful of days. Most babies are turned over to a family member, but federal law says that any parent whose child spends 15 out of 22 months in foster care can permanently lose their parental rights.

Having an incarcerated parent has been linked to a host of negative outcomes in areas including behavioral and mental health, homelessness, school performance, and future interactions with the criminal justice system.

— Incarcerating children

More than 30,000 children are locked up in juvenile facilities in this country.

That number is less than half what it was at its peak, in 1999, and experts believe it will continue to decline as officials find more effective alternatives. But there are major racial disparities. According to the Sentencing Project, black children are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than white children. More than 60 percent of child offenders are being held for nonviolent offenses like drugs, theft or even violations that only apply to minors, like curfew violations, underage drinking and truancy.

And while some of the worst facilities have been reformed or shuttered, children are still held in appalling conditions. In Louisiana, violence and the use of restraints have spiked in the last five years. A lawsuit filed this week in Palm Beach County, Florida, says teenage boys awaiting trial are held in solitary confinement for months at a stretch and denied education, some for no reason other than needing to be kept apart from a co-defendant.

— Removing children from the home

There are some 400,000 children in the foster care system, many of whom are prohibited from any parental contact. Of those, about 12 percent are housed in institutional settings or group homes.

These children are typically taken by people they have never met, without warning, then subjected to intrusive interrogations, medical examinations and sometimes strip searches, wrote Paul Chill, a law professor at the University of Connecticut, in a 2004 article about practices that experts say continue today.

Some three-quarters of cases nationwide involve not abuse, but neglect, a “really broad umbrella” that “often just looks like poverty,” said Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at Cornell University who studies the effects of paternal incarceration and foster care. “There’s no consistent evidence that removing kids is, on average, beneficial, and there’s substantial evidence that it does harm,” he said.

Even a caretaker’s authorized use of medical marijuana use can be grounds for removing children. Martin Guggenheim, a law professor at New York University and a child welfare advocate, said many of the cases prove unfounded, and child protection agencies disproportionately go after poor black and Latino parents. Parents who lose their children are not entitled to legal representation.