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The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) today released a critical new report demonstrating how the federal government’s reliance on “Significant Incident Reports” (SIRs) negatively impacts the well-being of unaccompanied and separated children in federal custody. Specifically, SIRs lead to children’s transfers to more restrictive settings, prolong their stays in federal custody, and delay family reunification or acceptance into federally-funded foster care.

Logos for the National Immigrant Justice Center and Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights

The co-authored report —Punishing Trauma: Incident Reporting and Immigrant Children in Government Custody—is based on surveys of dozens of service providers who work directly with unaccompanied and separated children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). In fiscal year 2019, federally funded providers filed more than 100,000 SIRs about children in custody. Responses to the survey illustrate how these SIRs–a longstanding feature of ORR’s system–have become the driving force of its disciplinary structure rather than a tool to ensure children receive the care they need. The report recommends a wholesale overhaul of the SIR system away from punitive responses to children’s behavior to one that ensures children receive individualized, trauma-informed care.

Jane Liu, senior litigation attorney at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and co-author of the report said:

"Agencies responsible for the care and custody of children must prioritize their best interests. Yet the federal government’s incident reporting system for unaccompanied and separated children falls far short of that mandate. SIRs police children’s words and actions, including trivial rule infractions, developmentally appropriate behavior, and manifestations of their trauma, grief, or frustration. Some children–particularly those who endure the longest periods in government custody–are caught in a vicious cycle, where they may experience behavioral challenges due to detention fatigue only to receive an SIR that is later used to prolong their stay in ORR custody.

"SIRs justify transfers to more restrictive settings or delay reunification with family. Keeping children in custody longer or placing them in settings where they are further isolated from their community exacerbates trauma rather than addresses it. In some cases, SIRs have led to unnecessary interactions between children and local law enforcement and even the arrest of children. SIRs in their current form pose a significant risk to the health and wellbeing of children. Nothing short of a complete overhaul will correct the systemic problems inherent in ORR’s incident reporting system to one that evaluates and is responsive to each child’s needs."

Azadeh Erfani, senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice and co-author of the report, said:

"SIRs provide a glimpse into the range of systemic issues affecting thousands of immigrant children in ORR custody. Without the resources, family, and community support they need to self-soothe and process the hardships they’ve endured, unaccompanied children in ORR custody will continue to express and cope with their emotions in only the ways they know how, from testing boundaries to engaging in self-harm. ORR translates their behavior into incident reports that bring cascading harms, rather than spur trauma-centered crisis prevention and de-escalation.

"Our report underscores the need for a complete transformation of the agency’s reporting system to truly center the needs and safety of children. ORR should redirect the exorbitant amounts of staff time and resources it uses on SIRs to implement a comprehensive, trauma-informed system that aligns with its child welfare mandate. Our report offers concrete steps that ORR can take toward this overhaul and urges ORR to engage with child welfare experts, child psychologists, de-escalation and crisis prevention experts, and former unaccompanied children to meet the needs of children in custody while prioritizing their swift release to their loved ones."

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is a non-profit organization that protects and advances the rights and best interests of immigrant children according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and federal and state law, and advocates for an immigration system that treats children as children first. For press inquiries, please contact Anabel Mendoza at and follow the Young Center on Twitter @theYoungCenter.

Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation, and public education. Visit and follow @NIJC on Twitter.