President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have squarely targeted the most vulnerable: children. Like most people, I was outraged last summer when I learned that children were being separated from their families after crossing the southern border. These families were fleeing horrific violence, seeking what they hoped would be a safe haven in this country. Instead, President Trump’s policy ripped children out of the arms of parents with no legal justification.
As an ultimate irony, the children were placed in the “Unaccompanied Children” program administered by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR was created to provide a humanitarian response to refugees arriving here in America, and the Unaccompanied Children’s program was for children who were truly arriving alone and needed temporary care — the very opposite of what President Trump turned it into. I know this all too well, because I ran that program during the first years of the Obama administration.
As I write this, nearly 15,000 migrant children are being held at shelters across the country. Conditions in some of the massive, hastily erected shelters are reportedly deplorable, including overcrowding, abuse and filth. Most recently, an 8-year-old boy, Felipe Alonzo-Gomez, and a 7-year-old girl, Jakelin Caal Maquin, both from Guatemala, tragically died while in U.S. custody at the southern border. And, some asylum-seekers have been degradingly stamped with numbers on their arm, reminiscent of another disgraceful era.
As commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), I can tell you that the trauma these children will have to overcome is immense and inexcusable.
With our partners in the de Blasio administration and the nonprofit community, we at the ACS both condemned the separation policy and worked to ensure that health care, mental health counseling, legal assistance and other supportive services were provided to the estimated 300 children who were brought to New York after being separated from their parents at the border last summer. This was a priority for ACS because, as a child welfare agency, our mission is to ensure that children are safe, healthy and supported, and that’s what we do every day.
Some have suggested that our response to this crisis was in contrast to the day-to-day work we do to make sure that New York City’s children are safe, because that work can require that we remove children from dangerous homes and place them in foster care for their own safety. We firmly believe that children belong with their parents, whether in New York City, at the border or anywhere else. The only exceptions are instances where children face imminent risk from abuse or neglect — that is, in situations where parents are endangering their children, not trying to protect them from danger.
NY keeps most troubled families together
Even in the vast majority of situations when abuse or neglect may be present, we are able to keep families together by providing supportive services to parents. Last year, more than 19,000 families received these “preventive” services and supports targeted to the family’s individual needs and issues, whether substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence or others. Our deep commitment to supporting and strengthening families in the community through prevention services has allowed the city to reduce the number of children in foster care to a historic low of under 8,500 — a momentous shift from nearly 50,000 just 25 years ago. The decline in our foster care population has continued in recent years even as national foster care caseloads have increased since 2012, due principally to the opioid epidemic.
All child welfare agencies take action to place children in foster care when absolutely necessary, but in New York City, we do so under strictly controlled circumstances: when a child is in imminent risk of serious harm, a parent or caretaker is unable or unwilling to protect the child from that harm, no less extreme interventions would keep a child safe and the danger to the child exceeds the trauma associated with separation. Conversely, we make every effort to keep parents and children together whenever safely possible to do so.
Child welfare practice is, at its core, about protecting children and strengthening families. Our goal at ACS is to do both, and we believe that in the vast majority of families we encounter, both these goals are achievable in unison.
The federal government’s separation policy, by contrast, violates every fundamental principle of child welfare practice by endangering children’s well-being for the sole purpose of punishing their parents. That is why we will continue to condemn it, as we continue our work to protect New York City’s children and support their families.
David A. Hansell is commissioner of the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and has served as a consultant to nonprofit, government and philanthropic organizations, most recently as head of KPMG’s Human & Social Services Centre of Excellence. From 2009-11, he served as acting assistant secretary and principal deputy assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.