Research – April 28 2020

Brown University conducts research on why children are separated from their families

Many factors lead children to be separated from their families, but there is little data that gives a global view on why this happens. SOS Children’s Villages International, looking for evidence to inform policy and practice, turned to researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island to conduct what is believed to be the first-ever global literature review on the reasons for child-family separation.

The research is led by Susan E. Short, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University. She says they are halfway done in their review and aim to publish their findings in a peer-reviewed article later this year.  

Q: How did the idea for this research come up?

Prof. Susan E. Short: Last year my colleagues and I at Brown were in a conversation with the research team at SOS Children’s Villages International. We were talking about all the reasons children are separated from their families. We realized that there are many studies about specific populations of children, but there was very little research taking a global view on this question. The research team at SOS Children’s Villages thought this information could be useful for SOS and our team at Brown thought this information would also be useful for scholars who are working in this area.

Q: Can you explain the objective of the research?

Prof. Short: I’m working with colleagues at Brown, including a group of outstanding students, to review the scholarly literature on the reasons for child separation. So far, we’ve collected about 1,000 research articles that have been written about child-family separation. Our goal is to review all of these articles, to determine from each of them the reason for separation, as well as some other details. Once we are done, we plan to write a research article. We’ll summarize the reasons for separation and we will also describe how these reasons vary from place to place as well as some other factors.

Prof Susan Short

Q: How do you think this research will be used going forward?

Prof. Short: The reasons for child separation are important for designing efforts to support families in need. Children’s experiences and needs vary. We’re hopeful that the results from the systematic review will provide useful information for organizations working with families, as well as researchers.

Through this research we also hope to bring more attention to children who are vulnerable and at risk of separation. Millions of children are separated from families around the world and we don’t know how many, or much about them as a group, because we do not collect systematic data. With this review, we stitch together existing research so others can use it. It’s a start and we need to do more.

Q: What do you expect to find from the literature review?

Prof. Short: Children everywhere are vulnerable. The reasons for separation are different in different parts of the world. They depend on local context. Our review will highlight this variation.

We also expect that this review will point out not only what we do know, but also, more importantly what we don’t know. It is going to point out gaps. This is going to help us see the questions that we’re not asking and point us in new directions.

Q: What are some of the main reasons children are separated from the families?

Prof. Short: There are so many reasons for child separation. A common reason in some parts of the world is parental illness and death. Another reason is migration – such as economic migration or crisis migration. Adults migrate for work, and children or families move in times war or natural disaster, which can lead to separation. Incarceration in certain areas of the world is also a reason.

Authorities also separate families to keep children safe and prevent them from harm and neglect. In our review, we see many studies relating to foster care, child abuse and neglect. Often, we’re finding that there can be more than one reason for any family, so we’re coding multiple reasons for child separation. Sometimes separation is desirable, such as when children go to boarding school.

Q: Is poverty alone a driver for child and family separation?

Prof. Susan E. Short: That is a complicated question. It also starts to unpack the idea that there are multiple reasons for child separation. How we understand these reasons depends on perspective. We can think about immediate drivers and fundamental causes. For example, now during the COVID crisis, many people are losing their jobs and sources of livelihood. Poor families, including families with children, are especially vulnerable. They may struggle to feed their families and so much more. We know from existing research that supporting poor families when children are young helps them immediately and also promotes long-term health and well-being.

Q: Are families that are socially isolated – those that do not have close connections to families or their communities - at a greater risk for child separation?

Prof. Susan E. Short: Absolutely, social connection is very important to the health and well-being of families. In all families, being able to fall back on others for support when unexpected challenges arise, whether they are economic or health challenges, or something else, is very important. Many factors affect whether families have this type of safety net.

Also, some families are vulnerable because they do not feel they can rely on their communities for support in times of need, or because their communities do not provide support equitably. For example, legal status is very important in many places. Parents who are immigrants and have been denied legal status may be concerned about deportation and may be reluctant to seek health care for themselves or their children. They may also be reluctant to apply for, or they may not be eligible for, social programs that support the well-being of vulnerable families.

Q: Has the risk of child-family separation increased with COVID-19 pandemic?

Prof. Short: We cannot know for sure yet, but we do know that families are very vulnerable in this current crisis. Children are especially vulnerable. While masks, tests, support for health care workers, and efforts to mitigate transmission and treat the disease are critical, we also need targeted support for families and children. More children will experience poverty. Families may have less access to immunizations and well-child visits. Parents and other family members may lose jobs or be ill, or they may be less able to access drug or other treatment programs, which will affect children. Adolescents may be greatly affected by social distancing, because peer support and relationships are especially important for adolescents. All of this will create stress and additional vulnerability for families. We need research to understand how families and children are being affected, and what they need. What best supports resilience in the midst of these challenges? The work that SOS does with family strengthening is especially critical now.

Q: How important is the role of governments and civil society in mitigating the risks of child separation?

Prof. Short: So important. We know that support for child health and well-being has immediate and life-long positive impacts. Support for families is strengthened with strong support from governments and collaboration with civil society. We need to build the evidence base for action and direct resources toward programs that support that work.