Although the separation of children from their families at the United States borders has supposedly stopped, the indefinite incarceration of immigrant families is no more humane or morally acceptable. The Trump administration continues to justify their policies by criminalizing parents and guardians, many of whom are seeking asylum or are simply looking for a better life for their children. More than 2,000 children are still separated from their families and will need help beyond reunification. The separation of children from their families is traumatizing and creates long-term harm.
Unfortunately, these sorts of policies and actions are not new, and do not represent an outlier in the moral fabric of the United States. This country has a long history of both removing nonwhite children from their families and incarcerating families of color who are positioned as a threat to the United States. For hundreds of years in the United States, black children were stripped from their parent’s arms and auctioned off as slaves. The incarceration of Japanese-American families during the second world war in “internment” camps is another well-known and devastating example of such policies. And for generations, the United States government targeted Native American communities with child-separation policies to force compliance and assimilation.
Why do these kinds of policies and actions continue to arise in our country, and what sort of ideas enable them? While racist, white supremacist, anti-immigrant ideologies are certainly at play, one overarching concept is a pattern of blaming parents and caregivers to justify the systemic inequities and inhumane treatment of nonwhite and poor families. In the extreme cases, like those we have seen under the current administration, parent and caregiver blaming can be used to justify the removal of children. The Trump administration has criminalized parents and caregivers, removed their children, and allowed some Americans to profit from this profound injustice. In more subtle forms, parent-blaming narratives are used to prop up policies intended to compel nonwhite or poor families to adopt mainstream, white values and norms.
These narratives suggest that poor outcomes for children of color are the fault of poor child-rearing, not of inequitable systems."
Until the 1940s, the U.S. government forcibly removed generations of Native American children from their families and communities and placed them in boarding schools in assimilationist efforts to, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” When the boarding school era began in the second half of the 19th century, the so-called “Indian problem” was two-fold: Native Americans were not assimilating into U.S. culture, and they had land and resources Americans wanted. Children were taken great distances from their parents, severely physically, emotionally, and sexually abused, often as punishment for speaking their tribal language or for practicing their tribal culture. The policy justification for Native children’s removal often involved claims that parents were not properly educating their children, and thus it was settlers’ moral and ethical responsibility to do so.
These early forms of child removal, originally legally sanctioned and justified, were eventually recognized as inhumane. Unfortunately, they were replaced by other forms of child removal with similar effects. Following the boarding school era, child protective services routinely removed Native children and placed them with white families. Prior to the 1978 passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act to stop this mass removal of Native children from their communities, up to 1 in 3 Native children were separated from their families nationwide. The majority of these children were removed for no more reason than that their family was poor or did not utilize traditionally white, middle-class child-rearing practices. Unfortunately, across the country, child protective services continue to disproportionately take children from families of color and low-income families into foster care for many of the same reasons.
The removal of children from their families is a traumatizing event for children and their caregivers and causes trauma that is passed on for generations. For example, work by researchers Amy Bombay, Kimberly Matheson, and Hymie Anisman demonstrates that Native children whose parents were forcibly removed and placed in boarding schools show psychological and physiological outcomes similar to those of the parents who directly experienced familial separations. The consequences of child-separation policies continue to impede the health and well-being of Native families and communities, including Native children’s educational achievement. Similar psychological and physiological outcomes are pervasive in African-American communities as well.
Beyond justifying family-separation policies, parent-blaming narratives are applied to families routinely across many American institutions. In education, policy directives, and educational institutions, practitioners often blame parents and caregivers for all kinds of disparate outcomes, including student attendance, behavior, suspension, and academic underperformance. At their core, these narratives suggest that disparate outcomes for children of color are the fault of poor child-rearing, not of inequitable systems. Often these narratives are used to coerce families to comply with the white, middle-class cultural models privileged in public schools.
In educational contexts, such narratives are often masked in “deficit models” of families of color and low-income families that position caregivers and their home lives as the source of educational disparities. For example, programs aimed at teaching parenting skills to poor parents and parents of color have proliferated across the country. These programs often claim that poor families and families of color don’t talk to, play with, or stimulate their children in the right ways and thus should be taught. These efforts persist despite research demonstrating cross-cultural variability in healthy child development.
Educational practices and policies rooted in these parent-blaming and family-deficit models aim to manipulate students and families into compliance—to assimilate and adopt mainstream cultural values or pay the consequences. However, such efforts largely fail to produce the espoused outcomes and instead, at best, prevent students of color from identifying with school, while perpetuating their families’ distrust of educational systems. At worst, these narratives create fertile ground for extreme policies like family separation.
In order to stop these destructive narratives, we must fulfill our moral responsibility to stop the ongoing crisis for the hundreds of immigrant children who remain separated from their families. We must also refuse family-deficit models as the foundations for our theories of action for educational change—or for any forms of policy. The recent call to action on both sides of the political aisle has proven that there is a limit to what society is willing to accept with respect to separating children from their parents. Let us hope that we will also refuse family incarceration as a viable policy.
When our legal systems violate basic human decency, they highlight the ways in which the seeds of these policies are sprinkled throughout our legal and social systems. Healthy communities—and, by extension, nations—rest on healthy families. There is no formula for a healthy family; they can be small or extended, a single parent head of household, two moms, two dads, three co-parents, or multi-generational, among many other possibilities. How our systems see and support families to thrive matters for who we are and what we can become as a nation.