Since 1939, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has worked tirelessly to welcome newcomers on behalf of Lutheran churches in the United States. In the wake of increased violence in Central America that forced more than 51,000 children to seek safety alone in the United States in the summer of 2014, our work to ensure the protection of vulnerable migrant children has never been more important.
Last week, we released a new report, “At the Crossroads for Unaccompanied Migrant Children: Policy, Practice and Protection,” investigating current policy and practice challenges facing these vulnerable children and providing a set of fundamental principles for approaching work with unaccompanied children. The report also provides a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for U.S. government decision makers with responsibility for treatment of unaccompanied children.
This report is the result of a series of roundtable discussions hosted by LIRS and its findings have been informed by the wisdom, experience, and passion of an extraordinary group of national and local experts on unaccompanied refugee and migrant children.
Based on the policy, practice, and protection wisdom of participants in these Roundtable meetings, LIRS developed a set of seven child protection principles to guide governmental and non-governmental work with unaccompanied children:
- Unaccompanied children are first and foremost children. Policies and practices must recognize their needs within a context of the best interests of the child.
- Screening of children for persecution, abuse or exploitation should be done by skilled child welfare professionals.
- In legal proceedings, children need trust, safety and time in order to disclose trauma and mistreatment. Unaccompanied children must have legal counsel to represent their best interests.
- Children are best cared for by their families in the most family-like, least restrictive setting.
- Programs must provide a safe and nurturing environment for unaccompanied children while also preparing children and their future caregivers for a successful transition to a supportive family setting.
- Every unaccompanied child should receive support and community-based case management following their reunification with family or supportive care.
- Children are best served when government agencies and their partners incorporate principles of accountability, collaboration, information sharing, best practices documentation, evaluation and quality improvement.
The report also highlights various protection gaps in the systems serving unaccompanied children, including:
- Flawed screening processes at the border, which exclude many children from protection on the basis of nationality rather than individual circumstances;
- The use of inappropriate holding and institutional facilities both at the border and upon subsequent transfer;
- Weaknesses in the system of placement, reunification and follow-up that fail to fully ensure children’s safety;
- The clear lack of legal representation for children (despite heroic volunteer efforts); and
- Budget-driven imperatives to fast-track procedures for children.
The U.S. government and its agencies must not lose sight of their legal, moral, and ethical responsibility to keep vulnerable children safe from harm. Our nation must continue its proud tradition of extending protection to those who seek refuge on our shores. It is time to stop giving into passing financial, political, and institutional pressures—with the lives of children at stake—and instead to commit to a consistent principled approach to the care and custody of unaccompanied migrant children.
Please read and share the full report, which is available to download at LIRS.org/crossroads. In the meantime, join us in taking action through the LIRS Action Center to encourage your elected representatives to protect children and all vulnerable people seeking safety in the United States.