Does Anyone Care about U.S. Children?

Over the weekend, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine visited the Youth for Tomorrow facility in Prince William County that has been housing undocumented-immigrant children for the past six years. The visit highlighted his call the previous day for the Trump administration “to assure us that every single one of the children they separated from their parents is quickly and safely returned to their families.”

Last week Governor Ralph Northam ordered Virginia’s National Guard contingent serving on the U.S. Southwest border to come home. He ordered the Guard to withdraw four soldiers and one helicopter from Arizona, he said, “until the federal government ends its enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their parents.”

Now that they’ve made clear their antipathy to the policies of the Trump administration, perhaps Kaine and Northam can turn their attention to a near-identical problem that has festered here in Virginia for decades: the separation of children from their parents in the administration of criminal justice in the U.S.

While the separation of children and parents at the border has dominated national news coverage for a couple of weeks now, the issue of child-parent separation inside the U.S. had barely warranted any attention at all. Ever. A rare exception was a USA Today article published in 2014, “Who’s Watching the Kids?

The Justice Department and police officials across the nation are directing their agencies to deal with thousands of children who are left behind following the arrests of parents, from surprise raids at family homes to roadside traffic stops.

Few law enforcement agencies have policies that specifically address the continuing care of children after such arrests, despite an estimated 1.7 million children who have at least one parent in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The number of children jumps to about 2.7 million when parents detained in local jails are included. …

Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the nation’s largest organization of police officials, are beginning to roll out guidelines to agencies across the country. It is an unusual attempt to shield children — often forgotten in the chaotic moments before and after arrests — from unnecessary “trauma” related to their parents’ detention.

I’m trying to understand the logic of those who oppose the separation of children and parents. Does the objection extend to all children separated from parents who enter the criminal justice system? Or does the insistence upon non-separation apply only to those who are trying to enter the United States?

When Kaine said, “every single one of the children they separated from their parents [should be] quickly and safely returned to their families,” does his logic apply to U.S. families? What would such a policy look like? Should children be admitted into jails and prisons to reside with their mothers? Or should mothers be released from jails and prisons to be with their children? Did Kaine act to prevent such policies when he was mayor of Richmond? If child-parent separation is such a moral travesty, why didn’t he?

When Northam demands that the federal government “end its enforcement of a zero-tolerance policy that separates children from their parents,” how would he describe state policy toward the separation of children from Virginia parents who are arrested and put into jail? Do we have a “zero tolerance” policy in Virginia, or are there instances in which parents are released from incarceration on the grounds of humanity? Does Northam even know what the policies and practices prevail in Virginia?

If Kaine believes that illegal-immigrant children should not be separated from their parents entering the criminal justice system, is he prepared to submit legislation to prevent the same from happening to U.S. children? If not, why not? Does he think U.S.-born children are less deserving of compassion?

If Northam decries the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” toward the separation of children, is he prepared to act against Virginia localities that also might have zero-tolerance policies? Does his heart not go out to Virginia children deprived of a mother’s embrace?

Young children are always innocent victims in these things, and they always deserve our compassion. But maybe, just maybe, the administration of justice in the real world gets really complicated and messy because the issues are inherently difficult. People in the law-enforcement community have been wrestling with these issues for years. I’d take Kaine and Northam a lot more seriously if they’d spoken up before now and if they’d addressed the practices in their own back yard.