Emerging Child Welfare Practice Regarding Immigrant Children in Foster Care: Collaborations with Foreign Consulates. Background


As the number of immigrant children and children of immigrants in the U.S. has grown, child welfare agencies are serving an increasingly diverse spectrum of families, including many families in which at least one parent or some children were born outside the U.S. This is true both in states that historically have been home to large immigrant populations and also in states and communities that are less accustomed to immigrant families. Child welfare agencies can face several challenges in working effectively with immigrant families, beyond issues of differing norms regarding childrearing and parental behavior. In particular, cases involving one or more parents and family members who do not reside in the U.S. or a parent who is in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement can be particularly complex.

To improve their work with these families, a number of child welfare agencies have in recent years developed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with foreign consulates promoting cooperation in cases involving children who are nationals of another country or whose parents are nationals of another country. The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, an international agreement to which 163 nations including the U.S. are parties, requires that the appropriate consulate be notified when a citizen of a participating nation is in the custody of the government of another participating nation. A specific provision of the agreement1 applies to foreign national children2 in the custody of a child welfare agency. In addition to this general obligation for notification when a foreign national child of a signatory country enters foster care, several states and counties in the U.S. have established bilateral agreements with their local Mexican consulates to foster cooperation on individual child welfare cases. Still others have developed policies on consular notification and cooperation that extend to cases involving foreign national parents whether or not their children are citizens of the parent(s) home country.

In order to better understand the practice of consular agreements on child welfare issues, we identified MOUs or similar documents from 11 states or counties (counties were all in California which has a county administered child welfare system). In two instances, we examined policy guidance regarding consular notification and casework practice with children in immigrant families rather than MOUs (these were from Missouri and Washington). We identified these MOUs and policy guidance through contacts with national advocates, Internet searches, and by inquiring through listserves of state child welfare officials maintained by HHS’s Administration for Children and Families. We did not conduct an exhaustive search; undoubtedly other agencies have similar agreements or policies in place. These examples do, however, provide a range of detail and include states and counties with more and less extensive immigrant populations. We believe they are illustrative of the variety of agreements in place around the country. In addition to our examination of written documents, we spoke with officials of three states responsible for implementing the agreements or policies in order to understand their history and utility. These interviews were with staff from Illinois, New Mexico, and Washington and took place in September of 2012.

The section below identifies the parties to the agreements we reviewed and summarizes their content in general terms. The summary is followed by descriptions of how the agreements are used in practice based on interviews with state officials responsible for their implementation. Finally, Table 1 at the end of this brief identifies in more detail the provisions included in the agreements and which provisions were part of each of the agreements and policies we examined. Note that all MOUs identified were with Mexican consulates. Mexico maintains an extensive network of consulates around the U.S. and its national social services agency has available an array of services that can be mobilized to serve children and parents repatriated from the U.S. Despite inquiries, we were unable to identify any agreements with other nations’ consulates. This may be due to the fact that fewer children in foster care or their parents are nationals of other nations or that the consulates of other nations have fewer legal and social services resources to offer their citizens in the U.S. The state policy guidance we reviewed for Missouri and Washington apply to all immigrant children taken into foster care regardless of the nation from which they or their parents immigrated. These policies are included here because their features are quite similar to the consular MOUs reviewed.

1 Article 37 reads, in part, “If the relevant information is available to the competent authorities of the receiving State, such authorities shall have the duty…to inform the competent consular post without delay of any case where the appointment of a guardian or trustee appears to be in the interests of a minor or other person lacking full capacity who is a national of the sending State.”
2 A foreign national child includes non-citizen children and U.S. citizen children who have dual citizenship in a parent’s home country. Nations differ as to whether dual citizenship is granted to U.S. born children of their citizens. A list of countries that grant dual citizenship may be found at: http://www.immihelp.com/citizenship/dual-citizenship-recognize-countries... and includes, for instance, both Mexico and Guatemala among many others.

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