The level of national outrage that pressured President Trump to end his policy of separating children from their parents at the border would suggest a society that values children and puts a premium on preserving families at any cost.
The sad truth is that the United States has multiple policies — particularly related to the criminal justice system and child protective services — that separate children from their parents on a daily basis.
According to Human Rights Watch the United States has “one of the highest rates of juvenile detention in the world.” Nearly 53,000 minors are incarcerated in the U.S. The majority are children of color. In Pennsylvania almost 3,000 minors are held in correction facilities.
For parents, it is not easy to maintain an active involvement in the life of an incarcerated child. A report from Vera Institute notes that juvenile justice facilities limit visitation length, number of visitors, and which family members are allowed to visit.
Incarceration is not the only time that the government removes a child from his or her family. On any given day there are nationally close to half a million children in the foster-care system. Of those, only 30 percent are in the care of a relative; the rest are separated from their family and other relatives. Philadelphia is slightly better; according to the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, of the 6,019 children in the city’s care, almost half were in foster care with a relative.
Recently a Philadelphia Family Court judge was reassigned after 26 families spoke up about having their children taken away from them without being allowed to present their case. As long as a single individual has the power to separate children from their families, the risk of this type of violation of children’s and parents’ rights remains.
Granted, this is not to suggest that foster care is inherently bad or that juveniles who commit crimes shouldn’t face consequences. But for too long, when a child or parent has done something wrong, the automatic response has been to separate the family.
Philadelphia has been making inroads in foster-care placement as well as incarceration of youth, which means policies to prioritize keeping families together work. Still, when it comes to the general well-being of children, we have a ways to go.
Philadelphia public schools are underfunded, the cost of raising a child far exceeds wages of low- and middle-income workers, and childhood hunger plagues the city. In North Philadelphia, childhood hunger has doubled, and among families where parents work 20 or more hours a week, more than tripled in the last decade, according to research at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.
The images and stories of migrant children wailing for their parents and being kept in chain-link cages have struck a powerful chord of outrage. It is time for that outrage to lead us to take a second look at our own practices, and consider how much this country truly values its own children and families.