A Message from the Dean on Treatment of Children and Families at the Border

June 21, 2018


Fellow Social Workers,

As a school of social work, we don’t often talk “politics” but we do always  talk “policy.”   We have all become aware of the mounting crisis created by the new policy of separation of children from their parents at the border.  Although the President yesterday signed an Executive Order halting one piece of the current policy, many questions remain.  As of today, it appears that those children who have been separated from their families will not be reunified in any timely manner, and it is unclear how the current federal court order limiting detention of children will be managed as families enter detention. Some, both in and out of government, have observed that many families may never be reunified.  It is important that our concerns for these separated children and families not fade into the background as events unfold.

Let me be very clear, the policy of separating families is not congruent with the ethics of our profession nor with what we know about the effects of separation on children and their parents.  As Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said:

What the administration has decided to do is separate children from their parents to try and send a message that if you cross the border with your children, your children are going to be ripped away from you.  That is traumatizing to the children who are innocent victims, and it is contrary to our values in this country.
Many of these families are escaping from trauma, abuse and war.  Those who seek asylum at our borders are not breaking any law; indeed, our law protects the asylum-seeker.  As social workers, we know the effects of separation on children and on their families.  These effects are well discussed by researchers from the Rutgers Child Welfare and Well-Being Research Unit and colleagues in a recent piece in The New England Journal of Medicine. As the authors’ note:
The effects of traumatic experiences - especially in children who have already faced serious adversity – are unlikely to be short lived: cumulative adversity can last a lifetime.
As a former child welfare worker, I am painfully aware of these effects, and know that our child welfare practice models advise us to only separate families in the instance where the child’s safety is at risk.  This is because we are always weighing one great harm against another.  It is tragic that our current policy would force separation when parents’ actions are aimed at providing safety for their children.  Many have used the word traumatizing to describe the effects on children.  The deliberate infliction of trauma on innocents can only be seen as torture, and is unworthy of us as Americans.
Here at the School of Social Work, we call on our government to immediately act to reunify families affected by these policies.
We call also on our elected officials to pass legislation that will prevent both family separation and prolonged detention of families.
I hope you will allow me a personal observation. In the past weeks, I have been confronted in multiple ways with the same question, “What is required of us?”  In all of our lives, there is an answer to this question, based on personal and professional ethics.  This is a time for each of us to consider what is required of us as social workers and as Americans.
Below, you will find some links to a few statements and to a few ways one might choose to act.  Please feel free to add additional resources through comments on social media.  I am well aware that this is a conversation for our country. As social workers, let us bring our professional knowledge and ethics, and our personal judgments, as we enjoin the conversation, the policy imperatives, and the social work responses.
Cathryn Potter

Dean and Distinguished Professor
Rutgers School of Social Work


Message from the Dean of Rutgers School of Social Work on Treatment of Children and Families at the Border

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