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Permanency Planning for Immigrant Youth in Care: Complex Needs - Comprehensive Strategies
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Permanency Planning for Immigrant Youth in Care: Complex Needs - Comprehensive Strategies

Ilsa Earner, Ph.D., LCSW, Director, Immigrants and Child Welfare Project, Hunter College School of Social Work

February/March 2007 issue


As immigration continues to change the face of New York City and other parts of the United States, social workers will be increasingly challenged to address the unique needs of immigrant families, children and youth. Child welfare service providers especially must have the resources, information and skills necessary to effectively address the complex needs of immigrant families involved with the child welfare system. This article will present a brief overview on factors that affect permanency planning for immigrant youth and recommend resources for those who work with immigrant families and children. At minimum, social workers should become familiar with the different types of immigration status and how to identify or assess immigration status for effective intervention.

The data on immigrants in New York City tells us what the future holds for social work: Immigrants and their U.S.-born offspring currently account for 55% of the total population; the foreign-born are also disproportionately younger than the native population, with Latino youth comprising the largest and fastest growing group of all. One consequence of migration is also that one in four New York City residents has difficulty speaking English. Further complicating this demographic portrait is that non-citizen households are far more likely to contain children (55% versus 35%) and that 85% of immigrant families with children are so-called “mixed-status” families, including various combinations of citizens and non-citizens, i.e., undocumented parents, citizen children and undocumented siblings. These families present distinct challenges for child welfare service providers in the face of recent federal legislation that has sought to substantially restrict the legal and social rights of immigrants.

While most people know that immigration status affects one’s ability to work legally, few understand the complex intersection between immigration status and access to social benefits. With the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) in 1996, all new legal immigrants were barred, for five years, from accessing federal means-tested benefits, including TANF, Medicaid and the Child Health Insurance Program. NewYork State, along with a few other states, opted to provide legal immigrants with access to certain state-funded programs. The undocumented, however, are generally not eligible for most programs other than emergency medical care and public education up to 12th grade. The “chilling” effect of PRWORA has kept many immigrant families from accessing services to which they are legally entitled, including health care and food stamp programs. As a result, immigrant families and their children are disproportionately poor, lack adequate health care, food and shelter.

Little is known about how, why or how many immigrant children and youth come to the attention of the child welfare system. Anecdotal evidence and limited studies suggest that their numbers are increasing, especially in long-term foster care.

In the absence of data one can only assume that the issues immigrants face are often the same as with their American counterparts: a combination of the normative changes that occur during childhood and adolescence and of exceptional family and environmental stressors. A number of unique experiences may also place them in scenarios where the risk for abuse and neglect is high. For example, some immigrant children have been sent to the U.S. alone and are living with extended family members. In other cases they may experience being left behind in their native country with grandparents or other relatives while their parents travel to the U.S. to find work. They may be reunified many years later with parents they hardly know and have to adjust not only to their parents and a new country, but perhaps to a new family as well, with siblings that are U.S. born. For many immigrant children the migration experience itself, especially if it included illegal border crossings, may have been traumatic. Psychological suffering can continue and profoundly affect adjustment to the reality of life in a new country. In addition, undocumented immigrants must cope with the constant fear of being found out.

Other issues that place immigrant children and youth at risk may be cultural differences between immigrant parents and their American-raised children, disciplinary practices that differ from accepted standards in this country, language barriers, untreated mental health problems within families, including substance or alcohol abuse, and individual difficulties with assimilation and acculturation. Much less is known about a growing number of disturbing cases involving immigrant children and youth who may be victims of trafficking, either with or without their families’ knowledge and complicity, for the purposes of employment or prostitution. Another small, but increasing phenomenon is unaccompanied minors, some of whom may be refugees although others are often picked up by immigration officials at ports of entry with no official status.

Once immigrant children and youth are involved with the child welfare system, they, and their families, face more barriers that may keep them in care longer and affect permanency planning outcomes. In some cases immigrant parents are unable to meet the service plan requirements for family reunification because they are ineligible, based on their immigration status, for certain federal or state-funded services, i.e., alcohol or substance abuse counseling or mental health services. In other cases parents may be too unfamiliar with or afraid to engage with child welfare authorities and do not understand, either because of language or cultural barriers, the consequences of their failure to comply with service plan requirements. Child welfare workers may also be hesitant to place immigrant children and youth in kinship care with undocumented relatives while the mandates of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 can result in permanent separation from family and kin for these children and youth in care.

For immigrant youth in out-of-home care, and who are expected to remain in care, it is critical for caseworkers to assess eligibility for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) – this is an immigration proceeding that allows undocumented immigrant children and youth to become permanent residents and obtain legal resident status. Despite the availability of this form of immigration relief, it unfortunately remains an underutilized avenue to achieve permanency planning for immigrant youth in care both in New York City and across the U.S. Once a child ‘ages out’ or leaves out of home placement, SIJS is no longer available as a way to change immigration status, and these children remain undocumented – meaning they cannot legally work, live or stay in the U.S. and may even be subject to deportation.

Given the small window of opportunity to effectively change someone’s life, identifying the immigration status of children, especially adolescents, in foster care, is necessary and should be made a routine part of concurrent planning protocols. Even if children or youth are reunified with their families, those with immigration status irregularities can and should be referred to immigration-related legal services or community-based immigration advocacy organizations that are qualified to provide expert advice, as the family may benefit from such a referral. Assumptions about immigration status should not be made based on a family or child’s ability, or lack of ability to speak English, the family’s ethnic background or country of origin.

The New York City Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) has made great strides over the last several years in addressing the needs of immigrant families and children. In 2002, ACS convened a special Immigrant Issues Sub-Committee Advisory Board composed of ACS personnel, community-based service providers and advocates. In 2004, with a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ACS created a special Director of Immigrant Services position to oversee policy and practice issues regarding immigrant families. ACS also provides specialized training to caseworkers and contract services providers on immigration status and distributes a handbook on guidelines and resources.

Much more work remains to be done. For social workers who are now challenged to provide services to immigrant families, children and youth, there are resources for training and information that can improve and make their practice with these families more effective. For further information and a listing of resources, visit NASW’s website at

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