In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immigration and Child Welfare

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Child Maltreatment, Abuse, and Neglect
  • Unaccompanied Migrant Children Involved in Child Welfare
  • Immigration Enforcement
  • Immigration and Child Welfare Policies
  • Needs of Immigrant Children in the Child Welfare System
  • Working with Immigrant Families Involved in the Child Welfare System
  • Special Journal Issues
  • COVID-19

Social Work Immigration and Child Welfare
Maryam Rafieifar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0334


The child welfare and immigration systems in the United States intersect when children of immigrants enter the child welfare system. In the United States, there are three ways that children of immigrants might be involved in the child welfare system: (1) occurrence and report of child abuse, neglect, or maltreatment by their immigrant parents; (2) immigration enforcement actions (apprehension, detention, or deportation) against the immigrant parents; and (3) unaccompanied immigrant minors who enter the United States alone. These children and their families may face an array of complex issues, including legal barriers, difficulties in accessing services, language and cultural issues, prolonged family separation, and sometimes termination of parental rights resulting from lack of communication or miscommunication between immigration and child welfare systems. The estimated share of children under eighteen who are foreign-born or live with at least one foreign-born parent has consistently risen. However, the number of children of immigrants in the child welfare system is unknown, as this information is not collected at the state or federal levels. Some states have specialized policies and practices to respond to the needs of children with immigrant parents. However, there are considerable variations in procedures by state throughout the country.

General Overviews

There is a dearth of research on the intersection of child welfare and immigration at the macro level. Cervantes and Lincroft 2010 looks at the impacts of immigration enforcement actions on child welfare and provides policy recommendations for immigration courts and child welfare agencies. However, Wessler 2011 was the first to investigate the juncture of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system at a national level. It estimated that at least 5,100 children were living in foster care whose parents were detained or deported. Child Welfare Information Gateway 2022 is an issue brief providing practical information for professionals in the child welfare system working with immigrant children and families. Greenberg, et al. 2019 provides an overview of key policy and practice issues at the intersection of child welfare and immigration systems in different jurisdictions and offers recommendations for policies and practices. Earner and Kriz 2015 discusses how competing policy mandates in child welfare and immigration systems negatively impact immigrant children.

  • Cervantes, W., and Y. Lincroft. 2010. Caught between systems: The intersection of immigration and child welfare policies. Washington, DC: First Focus and Migration and Child Welfare National Network.

    The report looks at the challenges child welfare agencies have experienced regarding children separated from their parents because of immigration enforcement measures. It offers policy recommendations to immigration and child welfare systems, one of which would be to prioritize keeping children with their families if possible.

  • Child Welfare Information Gateway. 2022. Working with immigrant and refugee families: A guide for child welfare agencies. Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.

    This issue brief provides an overview of the history of child welfare and immigration. It also briefly discusses the unique challenges immigrant families involved in child welfare might face. It further offers examples of trauma-informed programs and practices for professionals who work with this population.

  • Earner, I., and K. Križ. 2015. The United States: Child protection in the context of competing policy mandates. In Child welfare systems and migrant children: A cross country study of policies and practice. Edited by M. Skivenes, R. Barn, K. Kriz, and T. Pösö, 157–178. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This chapter introduces the legal and policy issues associated with child protection services and discusses how competing policy mandates impact immigrant children. It also provides an overview of the immigrant population in the United States.

  • Greenberg, M., R. Capps, A. Kalweit, J. Grishkin, and A. Flagg. 2019. Immigrant families and child welfare systems: Emerging needs and promising policies. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

    This Migration Policy Institute report is based on a study of different child welfare policies and practices from fourteen states, six counties, and New York City. Agency staffing and training, language access policies, and cooperation with foreign consulates are among the issues this report discusses for each jurisdiction. It finally provides recommendations on those issues.

  • Wessler, S. F. 2011. Shattered families: The perilous intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system. Washington, DC: Applied Research Center (ARC).

    This report covers immigration policies and laws and investigates the many threats to families when immigration enforcement and the child welfare system cross. It further examines how the child welfare system fails to effectively reunite the children with their immigrant parents who have been deported or detained and prolongs family separation. This research study is the first national investigation into the crossroads of child welfare and immigration systems.

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