BUILD Initiative Blog | Freedom from Fear: Implications of Curren
Strong Foundations For Our Youngest Children

BUILDing Strong Foundations

BUILD Initiative Blog



By Carmen Rosa Noroña, LCSW, Ms.Ed., CEIS, Child Trauma Clinical Services and Training Lead at Child Witness to Violence Project and Associate Director of the Boston Site Early Trauma Treatment Network at Boston Medical Center, and

Ivys Fernandez-Pastrana, JD, Program Manager 
Family Navigation Program, Pediatric and Adolescent Primary Care at Boston Medical Center

Families with young children who cross the border are usually forced to leave their countries due to dangerous circumstances and concern for their lives. The recent changes in immigration policies that affect how immigrants qualify for different types of status have created additional concerns and fear, especially those that are out-of-status and of mixed-status. In these families, parents have an increased legal vulnerability to detention and deportation. In addition, they face an increased risk of family separation, economic hardship, psychological distress, and confusion regarding support systems and whom to trust. For millions of children with an undocumented relative, or who are undocumented themselves, the fear is manifested in withdrawal from normative activities, accessing services, and in symptoms of emotional pain and traumatic stress. For the many children who were taken away from their caregivers (between May and July 2018, 2,300 children were forcibly separated from their parents while attempting to cross the US-Mexico border), it is manifested by an overwhelming sense of loss that can persist even after reunification. A proactive approach must be taken both to reduce fear in these children and families and to support the providers who work with them.

Using a Diversity- and Trauma-Informed Approach to Combat the Culture of Fear

Providers may have limited impact on immigration policy reform but they can actively work at becoming trusted resources and creating safe spaces. They can proactively use a diversity- and trauma-informed approach to services that focus on fear reduction. Approaches providers can take include engaging in self-exploration about their own biases and the impact of this work on them, facilitating access to appropriate mental health services to repair the trauma of migration and family separation, and empowering families through safety planning and ensuring they know their rights.

Caring for the Provider

While supporting children and families is our utmost priority, working with them can be triggering and overwhelming. Studies show that from 6 to 26 percent of therapists working with traumatized populations, and up to 50 percent of child welfare workers, are at high risk for vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress (STS). Organizations need to implement approaches to:

  • Increase awareness and early recognition of the signs of STS and the effects of other forms of work-related stress in the workforce.
  • Offer guidance and psychoeducation regarding these effects across all organizational levels so workers are not forced to face them in isolation due to concerns over losing their jobs or being seen in a negative light by supervisors and colleagues.
  • Promote capacity building. Workers should be provided with opportunities to increase their knowledge of and competencies in serving immigrant families with young children who have experienced traumatic events, including trauma related to the implementation of enforcement policies.
  • Enhance accountability. Organizations should conduct organizational self-assessments to determine if they are implementing trauma- and diversity-informed practices to support the workforce and the families served by them. This intentional exploration of how inequities in organizational practices, as well as the re-production of structural oppression at the agency level, compound with other stressors, particularly for workers and client families that are members of target groups.
  • Promote reflective practice/supervision. Implement practices that allow for increased self-reflection, and consequently self-awareness, from the top down and the bottom up (awareness of the impact of trauma and stress on workers as well as the impact of inequities and exclusion). Reflective supervision/practice and consultation have been identified as effective tools for these processes (when implemented appropriately and when they are part of a social justice framework). These tools support the development of work environments in which providers can offer meaningful care to the families they serve because they feel "seen," supported, and valued by their organizations.

The Path to Hope

As migrants continue to reach the US due to dire circumstances in their countries, we must move forward with sensitivity to these circumstances and the acknowledgement that freedom from fear is a fundamental human right. While we must aim, in the long-run, to advocate for comprehensive immigration policy changes, we must also focus right now on doing all we can to ensure the children and families both arriving to this country, and those already living here, are allowed this right and that the providers working with them are supported in ensuring it. 

Register here to join us on May 23, 2019, as we discuss diversity-informed interventions targeted at increasing these families’ safety, empowerment, and hope.

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