While We're On the Topic of Family Separations

Two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about how to help stop family separations at the U.S. / Mexico border and how to talk with children about immigration.  Since then, our country has rolled up its sleeves to pressure decision makers to find a better plan.  Many fundraisers have collected money for the ACLU and local organizations like RAICES who are working to protect immigrant families.  Yesterday, hundreds of rallies and marches took place across the U.S. demanding better treatment for our neighbors in need.  The collective passion and kindness around this concern is awesome and inspiring, and it creates hope that we can inch closer to compassion and inclusivity.

But, even if all border separations stopped today, our country would still be facing an urgent family separation crisis.  These heart-wrenching, recent scenes of children being ripped from their parents' arms are not unusual, unprecented, or un-American; rather they are part of a long-standing American tradition of dividing minority families to maintain or gain power and wealth.  At this time, 2.7 million American children are separated from their parents due to incarceration.  Non-white children are the most likely to have incarcerated parents.  Two-thirds of the parents are in jail or prison for non-violent offenses.  Research shows that having a parent in jail or prison can have dire consequences, from struggles in school to homelessness, for children.

Millions of additional children are separated from their parents each year when they are placed in juvenile detention.  Most of those juvenile offenders committed non-violent offenses.  In fact, 25% of incarcerated youth are held for very minor offenses that would not even warrant incarceration if committed by an adult (such as violating curfew).  10% of detained children are actually held in adult facilities.  Like their adult counterparts, incarcerated children are disproportionately people of color.  Only 14% of American children are black, but 43% of detained boys and 34% of detained girls are black children.  According the the Prison Policy Initiative,
Incarceration has serious, harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical health, their economic and social prospects, their relationships, and on the people around them. This is true for adults, of course, but the experience of being removed from their homes and locked up is even more damaging for youth, who are in a critical stage of development and are more vulnerable to abuse.
These are only the most recent examples of American family separation policies.  Until the 1970s, the U.S. took Native American children from their families and forced them to attend boarding schools where they were required to replace their native languages, religions, and cultures with "American" practices.  During WWII, thousands of Japanese Americans, including 30,000 children, were relocated from their homes into prison camps.  During America's long history of slavery, families were routinely divided through slave auctions, not just for profit but also to better control the heartbroken humans who were being held as property.  And, throughout our country's history, including the present day, poor children have been removed from their homes under the pretense that their parents are simply unable to provide adequate care for them, despite the fact that their removal often sends them to live in alternate, but equally or more deprived circumstances within our foster care system.  Of course, the ultimate example of systemic family separation can be seen in the American tradition of murdering unarmed, innocent black men and boys who are not even allowed to stand trial before being executed often based on accusations that would not even lead to incarceration if proven true.  Beyond the trauma inflicted on families of the deceased, research indicates that when unarmed black people are killed by police, the mental health of entire black communities is adversely affected.

All of that history to say, if you believe that Families Belong Together, the Mexican border should only be a fraction of your concern.  Facing these centuries-old systemic tragedies, you may be wondering, "what's a person with a conscience to do?"  The good news is that the same passionate energy that's influencing communities and their leaders to adjust immigration policy can also pressure elected officials to protect other American families.

Step 1: Write, call, and visit your elected leaders to let them know you are aware of America's legacy of family separation and to demand better policies.  Suggest laws that would end incarceration for non-violent offenders, reduce sentencing guidelines for those who are detained, reserve juvenile detention for only the most extreme circumstances, and eliminate incentives for expansion of the for-profit prison system.  Use this tool from the League of Women Voters to figure out who to contact.

Step 2: If you are able, financially support organizations that are devoted to improving the American justice system, including the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Step 3: Provide the children in your life with on-going opportunities to befriend people who are different from them and understand the life experiences of others.  Teach them to extend care and hospitality to those around them, and have frank, age-appropriate conversations about the systems in our country that limit certain people's opportunities to live freely with the families who love them.  Books are an outstanding resource for introducing people to new ideas and to the circumstances of others' lives.
A new picture book, called Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story About Racial Injustice, was written by three PhDs who've spent decades working as community advocates for children's health and social justice.  The book focuses on two families, one black and one white, as they grapple with a recent police shooting in their city.  The story and its appendices are meant to support parents as they have difficult conversations with their children about the scary examples of racism and violence that often dominate the news.

Which children's books are you using to start conversations with children about how we expect families to be treated in our country?

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