Commentary: How border policy creates more mess for foster care system

I work in Austin at the SAFE Alliance, a nonprofit agency with a vision of a safe and just community free from violence and abuse. Every day, we work with people who are seeking safety from violent and abusive homes – an arduous, complex, and sometimes dangerous process. Take for example the woman currently living in one of our shelters with her young daughters who came to us after fleeing a violent home and country. A home in which she and her children were trafficked for sex by her gang-affiliated husband.

We offer shelter, counseling, and supportive programs to address the horrific trauma this family has encountered. Every family fleeing abuse deserves this type of trauma-informed response.

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The current assumption of criminality for all undocumented adults who cross the U.S.-Mexico border has led to a policy of automatic prosecution, directly resulting in children being separated from their families. This separation is always traumatizing and has long-term impact on the health and welfare of already frightened and victimized children. SAFE Alliance’s work too often involves mitigating the trauma of being separated from one’s family – not only from parents, but siblings and other fundamentally important loved ones.

We have been told that children will be taken care of through the foster care system — a system that we know is unable to address current demand. I know children who have lived in 15 different foster homes, were removed from parents, and then bounced from home to home, school to school, and city to city.

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Every day, our therapists listen to young people who tell us how devastating it is to be separated from their siblings as a result of placement in foster care. It is too often viewed as punishment that no child could deserve for a crime no child could have committed.

In last year’s joint letter to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security — signed by more than 180 organizations, including SAFE — the Women’s Refugee Commission wrote that “family separation would not only traumatize families and create obstacles to protection, it will come at great financial cost and create chaos while overburdening current government systems.”

Thinking of Texas’ overburdened foster system, we can only imagine how many of the immigrant families impacted by border practices are being torn apart, not only at the seams of the parent-child relationship, but also at the bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood.

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That trauma is very real, and has equally real consequences for children. Trauma that can affect them for years and years, or even a lifetime, and have impact across generations.

As the Center for Disease Control’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study tells us, “childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity.” The more adverse experiences children have, the greater the risk for intimate partner, sexual, and other violence. The best way to end violence is to prevent violence from occurring in the first place and for every child to be raised in a safe and nurturing home.

The current policy of separating children from their families is not a deterrent, nor is it fiscally sound. Rather, it is punishing vulnerable children and creating future generations of victims and perpetrators with a multitude of costly and devastating life and health outcomes. It compounds the traumatic childhood experiences of these youth and breeds further abuse that we should be preventing.

White is co-chief executive officer of Safe Alliance.

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