The United States has a history of removing children identified as “the other” and placing them with strangers in an attempt to Americanize or white-wash them. This country has stolen generations of indigenous children by placing them in boarding schools, cutting their hair, and erasing their language and culture.[1] The idea of family policing has been around for centuries and it’s time we come to terms with our past and examine our current systems.

Both the immigration and the child welfare systems are doing as they intended—separating families and assimilating children to American culture. In 2018, nearly 25% of all children living in the United States had at least one parent who was an immigrant.[2] At the same time, roughly 14,000 unaccompanied minors were in the care of the Administration for Children and Families under the United States Department of Health and Human Services.[3] 73% of these youth were between the ages of 15 and 17,[4] an age group that is often neglected when it comes to services and appropriate placement in the child welfare system. Among those considered a tender age by the government (ages 0–12), nearly 52% were placed in traditional foster care or long-term foster care.[5] Many American children in the care of the government (state, local, or otherwise) have experienced high rates of trauma such as child maltreatment, family violence, and mental illness, similar to those with immigration experience. For this reason, many scholars have called for reform to the child welfare system. However, I would argue that a bolder approach needs to be considered. My position is similar to that of academics arguing for the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Current U.S. law classifies child abuse as an aggravated felony. Being convicted of this type of offense is basis for deportation.[6] However, it is important to keep in mind that what may be considered child abuse in an ethnically diverse case by one white social worker, may not be for another social worker of a different background. Physical discipline is, after all, very much cultural. When a culturally incompetent service provider flags a case as child abuse, not only are they risking the child being removed from the only family they’ve ever known, but they are threatening a family with the possibility of criminal charges and deportation. The child welfare system, this system of family policing, has allowed for service providers to play judge, jury, and executioner to immigrant families.

In an attempt to better serve Spanish-speaking families, the Illinois Burgos Consent Decree affords families the following rights: the right to have a bilingual caseworker in charge of your case; to receive DCFS documents and correspondence in Spanish; to receive services for your family, children, and yourself in Spanish; to have your child placed with a Spanish-speaking, bilingual foster family; and to have access to an interpreter whenever you request it at no cost.[7] While this policy aims to provide a culturally-sensitive child welfare experience, Illinois has still seen cases of Latino children being placed with white foster families and taught a language other than Spanish, rendering them unable to communicate with their biological families.[8] It is believed that in one of these cases, a negligent caseworker informed ICE of a parent’s immigration status, leading to the detainment of this parent.

Immigrant families should be kept intact and out of the family policing system. Yet, many “child protection” workers are reluctant to place children in kinship care, with other members of their biological family, due to the possibility that the family could be deported. Ten years ago, at least 5,100 children were living in foster care and prevented from uniting with their detained or deported parents.[9] As the tensions around immigration rise, one can assume that even more children are now being kept from their parents. It is likely that when an immigrant child remains in a nonrelative foster care placement, they may also struggle with a loss of cultural identity, knowledge of cultural practices, and the ability to speak their native language, which can make the reunification process more difficult.

As a former youth in care myself, I remember seeing my stepdad grapple to navigate the system. He didn’t speak English well and due to his work schedule, he struggled to attend the classes and services he needed to have my siblings and I return home. When reunification was still an option, the courts looked to my mother and my biological father (whom I am estranged from). No one considered that we could live with my stepdad, although he had been compliant with social services and would have taken us home in a heartbeat. Because he didn’t speak English and required a translator, I believe that not even his attorney represented him well. The system is to blame for not providing him with the support necessary for success.


* Leyda Garcia-Greenawalt received her bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, where she is currently a master’s student. After spending eight years in foster care, Leyda found her passion conducting research on criminal justice system involvement and child welfare policy. She plans to attend law school after obtaining her master’s degree to better advocate for children and families in need. Leyda spends her time trying to give back to the communities that raised her through community service and leadership.  She currently serves as the President for the Foster Care Alumni of America – Illinois Chapter in addition to being a sworn-in CASA/GAL.

[1] See Dawnland (Upstander Films 2018).

[2] Immigration and Refugees, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, [] (last visited Mar. 5, 2021).

[3] Latest UC Data – FY2019, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (Feb. 1, 2021), [].

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See 8 U.S.C. § 1227.

[7] See Ill. Dep’t of Child. & Fam. Servs., Burgos Consent Decree (2019),

[8] See Melissa Sanchez & Duaa Eldeib, You’re Destroying Families, Propublica Ill. (June 20, 2019), [].

[9] Race Forward, Saving Families: Uncovering Unintended Consequences, Mobilizing a Nation, [] (last visited Mar. 5, 2021).