What Happened to Family First? Separating Families at the Border in 2018

toddler crying with border agent at mexico us border


In February, 2018, President Trump signed the Family First Preservation Services Act into law. Known as the Family First Act, this sweeping legislation was the biggest change to the structure of federal child welfare funding since 1980.  Aimed at allotting more resources to help vulnerable families remain together and limit the number of children who end up in foster care, the Family First Act is broken into three main parts. Today, we’ll focus on the parts of Family First that help keep families intact and why it’s important in June, 2018.

Family First: Focusing on Services that Help Families Remain Together

The Family First Act changed how states can use Title IV-E funding (entitlement funds that pay for child welfare) to prevent children from entering foster care systems across the United States. Before its passage, Title IV-E funds could only be spent on foster care or adoptive placements.  Under Family First, Title IV-E funds can be used to prevent children from entering foster care.  Here’s how this works:

Time-Limited Services:

  • Mental health services to help families identified as “at-risk” of being separated by foster care.
  • Substance abuse treatment services to help caregivers identified as being “at-risk” of having children removed by child welfare systems.
  • In-home parent skills programs to help parents identified as “at-risk” of having children removed by child welfare systems.

Individuals for Services Under Family First:

  • Parents or relative caregivers of youth identified as “at-risk” for foster care.
  • Youth in foster care who are currently parenting or who are pregnant.

In addition to adding time-limited services for families and youth at-risk of entering foster care, the Family First Act also removes time limits on funding for reunification services.  Under Family First, there is no limit on how long a child can receive reunification-based services once they enter foster care.  This means that a child in foster care whose goal is to return home to their family can use Title IV-E-approved services to meet that goal for as long as it remains feasible. Title IV-E funds can also be used for an additional 15 months to support a family once reunification has occurred.

In order to receive services under Family First, a formal prevention plan must be initiated with a foster care candidate that includes how the child will remain safely in the home and outline which services the family will use to achieve success under the prevention plan.  The Family First Act has invited the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee prevention planning as states begin to participate.

The Family First Act formally begins in October, 2019.  The Federal government is matching fifty percent of funds between 2019 and 2026 under Family First to approved providers.

A Cause Célèbre for Child Welfare Organizations

Research shows us that remaining with biological family is what’s best for children. Being separated for long periods of time from parents or relatives has permanent and irreversible impacts on children that can last a lifetime.  The goal of foster care should always be reunification with parents or biological caregivers, but the goal of child welfare should always be to avoid removal from family whenever possible.  When birth-families cannot remain intact and where reunification is not possible, it is the duty of ethical child welfare agencies to act responsibly to ensure children are settled with qualified, loving parents who can support them over a lifetime within the fabric of a permanent family system.

The Family First Act addresses some of the most pressing issues in foster care and family health today.  By allowing organizations to use Title IV-E funding to assist at-risk families before separation occurs, and to provide them continued support after reunification, the Family First Act has the potential to prevent the unnecessary division of otherwise healthy but vulnerable families. By expanding access to difficult-to-obtain services like mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment to parents seeking help, Family First can break the cycle of abuse and substance dependency when we desperately need it.

On February 9th, when President Donald Trump signed the Family First Act into law, the bill’s key sponsor Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) said, “This bill makes sure that children are protected and families are not split up unnecessarily.  Our current system creates a perverse incentive to place children in foster care. Breaking up families should be a last resort.”

What Happened to Family First on the Border?

Beginning in mid-April, 2018, the Trump Administration began separating migrant children from their parents as they entered the United States at the US-Mexico border, citing a “zero-tolerance policy for illegal entry” into the country.  Reports are growing that children as young as 8 months are being housed in encampments behind chainlink fences in border states, grouped in cells under thermal blankets without toys, age-appropriate stimuli and other items critical to the developing brains of children.  The administration and proponents of family separation claim children cannot be housed together in detention with their parents, who’ve been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, despite this being an ongoing practice over the past two administrations.

When children arrive at encampments, The Department of Health and Human Services process their intakes through the Office of Refugee Resettlement.  HHS facilities along the border have been rapidly reconverted to house children (including a Wal-Mart Supercenter), and little is known about where they will be placed after they are released from detention. Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX) reported witnessing an 8 month old infant at such a facility in Texas who’d been living at the detention facility for several weeks.

The dichotomy between what is happening on our border and the intent behind The Family First Act is shocking. After forcibly separating a child from their parent, the immediate effects are physical. The child begins crying, his heart rate elevates, and increased stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can be observed. Blood pressure rises. Often, verbal children will report physical symptoms like headache and stomach discomfort.

As separation time increases, the untrained caregiver may note that the child is calming down and assume he has recovered.  This is when silent stress begins.  Particularly if a child cannot communicate with a caregiver (if the child is pre-verbal, or when a language barrier is present), depression and anxiety begin to develop. A dramatic reduction in the brain’s electrical activity can be noted. Over time, the brain’s grey matter is reduced. Conditions like PTSD, separation anxiety, panic attack disorders and impulse control may begin. Children who’ve experienced long-term separation from their primary early caregivers face an increased risk of comorbidities like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and substance abuse disorder.  On June 14th, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a Press Release calling the separation of families at the border “child abuse” and “everything we stand against as pediatricians”.  Learn more about the physical impact of family separation here.

What Can You Do to Make a Difference?

Remember that this is not a political issue- people across the political spectrum are voicing their dissent against this policy.  Protecting our borders is possible without traumatizing children. Children are being targeted and time is of the essence. Speaking out against this inhumane treatment at our country’s own borders is imperative, and your voice is a critical tool. Reminding your friends and family that how we navigate shameful spots in history is remembered individually and as groups. Adoptions Together has always stood against the separation of families within our borders, and today, we stand against the separation of families at our borders. Your stand against family separation is what is best for children and it’s what’s best for families. 

Contact your elected representative and voice your dissent against the inhumane treatment of children and their families at our borders today.


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