Abstract: Preventing Family Separation: Child Custody and Family Deportation Planning with Undocumented Latinx Families (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Preventing Family Separation: Child Custody and Family Deportation Planning with Undocumented Latinx Families

Friday, January 17, 2020
Independence BR C, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jodi Berger Cardoso, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Liza Barros Lane, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX
Monica Faulkner, PhD, LMSW, Director, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Jennifer Scott, Assistant Professor, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge, LA
Natalia Giraldo-Santiago, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Background. Nearly 90% of the 5.1 million children with an undocumented parent are U.S. citizens. Between 2010 and 2018, more than 500,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were deported. Given the heightened immigration enforcement in the interior of the U.S., the risk of family separation for undocumented families in imminent. Immigration legal advocates recommend written, notarized child custody plans as the most effective way to protect children in the event that a parent(s) is detained and/or deported. However, there is little research documenting how families address this issue in the context of their legal vulnerability.

Methods. The current study used a convergent, parallel, mixed methods design. We conducted semi-structured interviews and conducted surveys with 70 undocumented parents with dependent children to explore their proposed child custody arrangements in case of detention or deportation. Participants were recruited through community-based organizations in two Southwestern cities. Parents were majority female (80%), from Mexico (89%), and in a married or cohabitating relationship (81%). We coded interviews according to the presence and strength of the child custody plan (0 = no verbal/written plan, 1 = verbal but no written plan, 2 = a notarized plan). We used thematic analysis to better understand how families think about child custody plans and the barriers to planning for deportation and/or detention.

Results. Of the 70 undocumented immigrants, 39 parents (55.7%) reported no plan, 26 (37.1%) reported a verbal plan that they shared with a spouse or family member, and 5 (7.1%) reported they had a notarized plan. For families that did not discuss a child custody plan, the greatest barrier centered on being too afraid to think about it; “You know we just try to think positive. We don’t have any type of plan whatsoever. We don’t even think about something going wrong like that.” Parents who reported having a verbal plan acknowledged that having a plan was important, but were generally unaware that legal advocates recommend the plan be written and notarized; “…Well since we do not have a deportation order we haven’t thought about that [a written plan].” For all families that reported discussing a child custody plan, the most frequent scenario was that children would remain in the U.S. with the non-deported parent or another family member with legal status. Demographic differences between the three groups were observed. Parents who were married (X2 = 6.53 (2), p = 0.38) and had one or more U.S. citizen children (X2 = 11.61 (4), p = 0.20) were more likely to have discussed a plan or have a written child custody plan compared to unmarried parents and parents with non-citizen children.

Conclusions. Without notarized child custody plans, children in undocumented families may be at a greater risk of long-term separation and possible child welfare involvement. Since both are associated with negative outcomes for children, having a notarized plan is a key way for undocumented parents to protect their children. Findings suggest the need for interventions that reduce parental anxiety and educate undocumented parents about their parental rights.