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Engaging the Global Social Service Workforce to Protect Children on the Move

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by International Social Service-USA

Of the close to 260 million migrants around the world, an estimated 50 million are children who have left home as a result of poverty, war and other life-threatening circumstances .[i],[ii] In the United States, there is increased attention over the past few years, to the hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants seeking safety at the US-Mexico border, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors.[iii] The conversation about the future for these children has largely been taking place in the context of legal aid, with millions of dollars invested in the legal defense of unaccompanied and separated children. Meanwhile, there has been little attention to or investment in, their social service needs. While many children seek relief through the backlogged US asylum system, few petitions are granted. The vast majority remain in the US with limited access to services and vulnerable to deportation. However, others seek voluntary return to a home country. It is for these children in particular that a robust global social service workforce is crucial to ensuring long term safety. 

Children on the Move include migrant, refugee, trafficked or other asylum-seeking children who leave home with family or on their own to seek a better life. Most are fleeing danger, including natural disasters, war, armed conflict or other violence.[iv] Children on the move present unique challenges to the coordination of social services as they cross state and international borders and engage with multiple judicial and protection systems that often lack coordination. It is at the nexus of legal, judicial and protection systems that social service workforce has a vital role to play, particularly social service case management. 

Social workers and case managers identify, engage, and coordinate services for children.  This includes legal aid groups, psychosocial resources, medical and educational systems and other supports that help children return to, and remain safe, in their communities. When working with children on the move, the missing piece is cross-border case management that includes pre-departure planning, the development of a repatriation and reintegration service plan, and on-going case management upon return.

International Social Service-USA (ISS-USA), is the US branch of an international network of social service providers present in 130 countries. ISS-USA has been providing cross border case management and permanency planning services for migrating children and families for more than 90 years. The extensive knowledge gained by International Social Service (ISS) network partners working with migrating children and families over the years has allowed the network to author/co-author several key guidelines to best practices, most recently, Children on the Move: From Protection Towards a Quality Sustainable Solution, A Practical Guide. In addition to presenting policy and advocacy recommendations, the Guidelines provide action steps for social service professionals, regardless of their country context, to work with children on the move and ensure long term solutions in the best interest of the child.

ISS-USA’s current Family Reunification and Reintegration program in Guatemala is an example of how the Guidelines can be put into practice. ISS-USA case managers coordinate with  US-based providers working with unaccompanied and separated children, as well as with the ISS partner social workers in Guatemala. The local Guatemalan social worker conducts assessments and resource mapping, working with the family prior to the child’s return to develop a service plan and engage local resources to stabilize the child’s reintegration. Once the child arrives in Guatemala, the social worker accompanies the family for six months, helping them access a variety of services including housing and nutritional support, medical and mental health services, educational and vocational programs and other social service supports based on the family’s needs and wishes.  

Preparing for the possibility of a child’s return to his or her country of origin is not equivalent to advocating for a child’s forced removal or aiding in enforcement policies. Rather, engaging a network of social service professionals across borders and disciplines ensures that decisions made for each individual child are factually-informed, abide by international law, and are based in internationally-recognized best practices in child protection.


To learn more about best practices related to Children on the Move, check out ISS-USA’s October conference Beyond Separation: Protecting Cross Border Families).