The impact of immigration detention is not confined behind the gates of the detention centres: it involves people’s children, families, friends etc. Nick Watts is a child & family practitioner and co-founder of the charity Migrant Family Action, that provides specialist social work, advocacy and youth work to families who are oppressed as a result of their immigration status. Nick explains here what types of impact immigration detention has on children whose family member is detained.  The flexible support Migrant Family Action provides is individual to meet the needs of each child and family. Migrant Family Action can also provide advice and guidance to professionals and other people supporting children, young people and families.
Immigration detention is regularly in the spotlight. In recent months alone we have read about deaths in detention, centres that are dangerous – full of drugs & violence and of course, the notorious Panorama documentary. The coverage, quite rightly, focuses on the direct impact of detention from those who experience being within it. But I have been asked to raise a different issue for this blog this year, that of the families ripped apart by detention.
When a parent is detained, the effects are far wider than just the person being detained. There is the fall out on a remaining parent (where there is one), the children and the family unit. This effect ripples out into the community, considering for instance, the effect of behavioural and emotional problems as a result of losing a parent to detention in school and in friendship groups. In 2006, a report in The Guardian highlighted refused asylum seeking mothers being separated from their babies and detained. Open democracy in 2011 wrote a poignant article on the separation of fathers from their children by immigration enforcement. Since then, fairly regular reports come out of parents who face separation from their children for enforcement purposes. In light of this, what do we know about the effects of this on children?
The impact of detention
In one study from the US(1), they draw on the case study of Julia whose son witnessed her removal by immigration enforcement officers, described this causing a deterioration in her son’s behaviour, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and nightmares. Despite only being separated for nine days, the research reports the child suffered severe and enduring separation anxiety as a result. This study, while from the US raises a very important point. Children who are living in families with precarious status’ often have ongoing fears and concerns about enforcement action, regardless of whether this results in detention. This often leaves families that we work unable to move on, feel permanence and prevents people being able to access legitimate opportunities to provide for their children, affecting significantly their agency as parents.
In another US study(2), looking at the psychological effects of parental detention on US citizen children. High correlation was found between Adverse Childhood Experiences and immigration matters. The paper highlighted the propensity for long term psychological harm being done to children as a result of separation. It highlighted the unique issues that arise including feelings of shame, isolation and stigma. It also highlights that children in this situation are more likely to develop psychological problems and more likely to suffer structural harm, such as be living in poverty or have adverse school experiences.
There is very limited research into the effects of immigration detention of a parent on their children. However, it is possible to look at the effect of children of prisoners and those separated from their parents more generally to be able to explain some of the effects. It is important to remember, however, that various other factors impact children or have parents with precarious status, including issues around access to funds, ‘status effect’ on children and young people, community exclusion and isolation.
In UK based research by Barnardos, they found that children of prisoners more generally are twice as likely to experience mental health issues, problems around behaviour and emotional health. In another research report(3), they list the main experiences of children who suffer separation as a result of imprisonment as trauma, instability in family life, social isolation and exclusion, stigma, emotional health problems, school attainment problems, multiple deprivation. This is very consistent with the findings of those few immigration studies from the US looked at earlier, perhaps suggesting a consistent effect on children who have parents separated from them as the result of some form of legal enforcement.
Another interesting theme in the report is the impact on parenting capacity. In many of the cases that we see, one of the parents, more often the father, is removed from the family and detained. The Barnardos research and our experiences suggests that the parent left behind in a two parent family will be subject to (understandably!) significant stress and lack the ‘backup’ of the other parent. This is likely alongside dealing with their own feelings of separation and loss.
It is also briefly worth considering attachment theory in order to look at the experiences of children who lose a parent to detention. Put very simplistically, attachment theory suggests that children form special and enduring bonds with their caregivers and that a disruption to that special bond can cause problems for the child. Ironically, most of those issues that have been documented are already explored in the research talked about above.
So what can we do about it?
We can quite safely say that the impact of immigration detention on children is huge. So if you know someone who is affected by this or are affected by this yourself, what can you do?
Get advice
Working with children who have lost a parent to detention is an incredibly delicate process that needs care and thought. Organisations like ours, made of up children’s professionals can provide advice, guidance and sometimes direct support to support families experiencing separation.
Children first
Listening to children is the most important thing. Their experience and perception of it is the truest version of events for them. Allow them space to talk about their experience. There is rarely a solution to offer a child in this circumstance. But allowing them time and respecting their voice will go a long way in helping a child to explore their feelings about the subject. There is no need to tell children how they should feel – Listening is your most powerful tool. It should also be at a child’s pace, allow them to bring it up. There is no need to play therapist, which could in fact do more harm than good. Be a listening ear.
Be Practical
As we discussed, sometimes, parental resources are extremely limited. Again, organisations like ours are able to offer advice and guidance and sometimes direct work to parents who are struggling as a result of separation. Doing practical things such as supporting the remaining parent with shopping, or popping round to help with the children or just for a chat can make a huge difference. Families need friends.
It can be worth researching migrant networks, such as our wonderful friends at Akwaaba who provide a really inclusive space for migrant families in North London and other spaces families can find solidarity, friends and support – With the ultimate goal of reducing social isolation and stigma often associated with detention.
The issue of contact
The research is in split minds about this sometimes, but I like to think about this in quite a simple way – being led by the child’s wishes. Maintaining a parental relationship through detention can be a huge challenge, but it is important to work with the wishes of the child all the way through. Again, professional support can help children to explore how this may work and advocate for them with authorities to ensure that the relationship is maintained to the highest standard possible. Seeking advice on how this can be achieved could be a good idea.
Visiting, in my view, is not always in the child’s best interests and can be a daunting and traumatising experience for a child. Of course this is very dependent on the individual child, hence the need to listen and let the child lead. It can be a good idea to get advice from professionals if they do want to visit who can support parents and children to prepare for visiting and the sometimes difficult emotional fall-out of visiting detention centres.
It’s worth thinking about how phone contact might work (and the limitations of, for instance, the cost of calls in immigration detention centres). Creative written contact is also worth exploring. For some children I have worked with who have lost a parent to detention, scrapbooking the time away can be a valuable experience to help them to reconcile their experiences and provide a bonding object when the child is reunited. Encouraging children to share both positive and negative experiences and providing a way to support them to share those are sometimes really helpful.
The reason I stress the need for advice is that these situations are rarely ever just about detention, but about the wider issue of immigration matters, wider fallout in terms of community resources and schools and a children’s professional should be able to provide a guiding hand through these issues. The best thing families need from people in these situations is to be surrounded by friends, love and practical support. If you would like to support the professional work that happens with children and families oppressed as a result of their immigration status, you can donate for instance to our project here. If you want to talk to a children’s professional if you are concerned about a family going through separation because of detention, or would like some advice about it, you can find out more about our family support project here.
1) Brabeck, Lykes & Hunter, 2014, ‘The Psychological impact of detention and deportation on US Migrant Families’, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 5,  pp. 496-505.
2) Rojas-Flores, L, Clements, M, Hwang Koo, J, & London, J 2017, ‘Trauma and psychological distress in Latino citizen children following parental detention and deportation’, Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, And Policy, 9, 3, pp. 352-361.
3) Gill, O & Jacobson-Deegan, M, 2016, ‘Children of Prisoners, A guide for community healthcare professionals.’, Barnardos i-Hop project.