Abstract: Caregivers and International, National and Local Concepts of Children's Rights for Unaccompanied and Separated Minors in U.S. Immigration Detention Custody (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

397P Caregivers and International, National and Local Concepts of Children's Rights for Unaccompanied and Separated Minors in U.S. Immigration Detention Custody

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Amanda Stafford McRell, MPA, Doctoral Candidate, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Breanne Grace, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Background/ Purpose:

Scholarship from child welfare and international migration demonstrate that children who are unaccompanied by their caretakers and/or separated from their caretakers are uniquely vulnerable to trauma and adversity. Upon arrival at the United States-Mexico border, unaccompanied and separated children (USC) are under the care of over twenty human service agencies; many with overlapping and conflicting goals, objectives and responsibilities. This study conceptualized children’s rights as things minors (youth age 17 and younger) “need” and/or “should have.” As such, children’s rights are provided, promoted and protected by this complex amalgamation of bureaucratic entities at international, local and national levels. Internationally, the primary children’s rights doctrine is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Nationally, the Flores Settlement Agreement (1997) provides a benchmark for the rights of children in U.S. detention custody. Locally, children’s rights are enacted by staff members providing direct-practice USC services.

This qualitative study aims to better understand how direct care providers manage international, national and local concepts of children’s rights for unaccompanied and separated youth in the custody of the U.S. Immigration Detention system by analyzing national and international children’s rights doctrines, along with interview data from local direct-care providers.


To better understand how conceptualizations of USC’s rights diverge and converge at international, national and local levels, we collected in-depth, semi-structed interview data from staff members working with USC (n=6). We conducted content analyses of the international UNCRC, national U.S. Flores settlement agreement and local staff member interview transcripts; over 152 total pages of qualitative data. Each rights document and transcript was iteratively analyzed and a codebook was revised thematically until no new themes emerged. Coding was conducted in NVivo 12.


Content analyses of the international UNCRC, national U.S. Flores Settlement Agreement and local staff member interview transcripts revealed convergent and divergent themes related to children’s rights. Five convergent themes emerged: 1) basic needs access, 2) voice, 3) potential, 4) family connection and 5) cultural protection. Although convergent, these themes differ in their construction by assumptions. Three divergent themes emerged 1) mental/behavioral healthcare 2) living environment 3) social connections and 3) feelings.

Conclusions/ Implications

Children ultimately experience their rights as they are provided, protected and promoted at the direct-practice level by their immediate caretaker(s). For children in immigration detention custody, the ways in which local human service agencies understand children’s rights directly impacts children’s health and well-being. As such, study results suggest ways in which international and national-level children’s rights policies are not prioritized at the direct-practice level; and ways in which ideas of children’s rights at the local, direct-practice level may be omitted from national and international conceptualizations.