Illinois has among the largest immigrant communities in the nation and is a well-established destination for immigrant families. Given this context, the Illinois state child welfare agency, known as the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), established a specialized Immigration Services Unit that is responsible for assisting staff on immigration issues related to foreign-born children who are in the custody of the agency. This unit deals with citizenship status issues for children and youth in care, including: obtaining legal permanent resident status for foreign-born children and youth, establishing citizenship status for qualified youth who are permanent residents, replacement of permanent resident cards, refugee status adjustment, stay of deportation, asylum, removal of conditional status and assistance in obtaining birth documents from foreign consulates or embassies. In addition, the agency has developed a pamphlet about child abuse investigations in Spanish describing how and why investigations are conducted and what parents may expect during an investigation. The state has also established clear guidelines for placing children with undocumented relatives when that is determined to be in the child’s best interests.
The Illinois DCFS was the first child welfare agency in the nation to establish an MOU with the Mexican consulate. An initial agreement on consular notification was signed in 2000, followed by a more extensive agreement on cooperation in 2004. The agreement has been renewed several times since then, most recently in 2011. Information on the specific provisions of Illinois’ agreement may be found in Table 1. Most of the foreign born children in DCFS custody are Mexican as are most of the foreign national parents who come into contact with the agency. On occasion other consulates have approached DCFS about whether they also should establish MOUs, but because they only have a few children in care from any foreign nation other than Mexico, these consulates ultimately chose not to pursue formal agreements with DCFS. The state cooperates with other consulates on a case by case basis but there has not been sufficient volume to institutionalize procedures and roles.
The state’s original agreement with the Mexican consulate was precipitated by a series of cases in which parents’ lack of legal status in the U.S. delayed or prevented reunification with a parent who otherwise would have likely been granted custody. The Mexican Consul in Illinois at the time was eager to address the rights of Mexican parents with children in DCFS custody and began discussions with Illinois’ child welfare agency to make sure that consular assistance could be made available in these cases. A dozen years after the agreements were drafted, these sorts of cases are much more rare, though they do still occur, according to Jean Ortega-Piron, Guardian/Deputy Director of the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services and one of the DCFS officials who led the negotiation of the original agreement and who continues to be an advocate within the agency for immigrant children and children of immigrants in foster care4.
The MOU in Illinois provides a structure for initiating contact with the consulate to notify consular staff of a child in care and to request assistance from the Mexican social services agency, Sistema para el Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (known by its acronym, DIF) as needed. Illinois does not have large numbers of non-citizen children or children from immigrant families in care, but there are enough that the state finds it helpful to have a process and expectations for staff. Obtaining the parent’s consent to release information allows the sharing of information between DCFS and the Mexican Consulate that would otherwise be prohibited because of confidentiality restrictions. The agency believes that such information sharing results in better service for the family.
The Mexican Consulate provides assistance to DCFS in a number of ways. For instance, in a recent case, DIF performed a home study on a relative who was being considered as a placement resource and is conducting monitoring visits in Mexico now that the child has been placed across the border. In another recent case, the consulate arranged for the father to participate in court proceedings by phone from a consular office in Mexico and consular officials interpreted. Consulate officials often obtain birth certificates for children. Even outside the scope of the written agreement, the MOU has proven helpful. For instance, consular staff work with DCFS to conduct outreach in the immigrant community, host joint trainings with DCFS staff and make presentations to the courts. DCFS officials note that these actions are intended to ensure Mexican citizens (parents and children) are treated fairly by U.S. agencies and courts, and are not used to question the child welfare agency’s safety decisions.
4 Ms. Ortega-Piron has retired since the research for this brief was conducted.