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Immigration and Sexual Abuse: Protecting Undocumented Children

Immigration and Sexual Abuse: Protecting Undocumented Children
April Dirks, PhD, MSW, LISW
November 30, 2020

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Immigration and Sexual Abuse: Protecting Undocumented Children , presented by April Dirks, PhD, MSW, LISW.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Determine best practices when working with Latino families who have experienced sexual abuse.
  • Apply Trauma-Informed Care techniques when working with Latino families and children.
  • Recognize how trauma might be expressed by unaccompanied immigrant children from Latin American countries.


We are going to get into the details of what you can do as a helping professional when you do encounter folks who have experienced the topics we are going to cover today.  

Who Are the Children in Need?

Asking who the children in need are is the biggest question. I imagine the first thing that comes to mind as a practitioner is the children in the detention centers at the border. We have heard horror stories about children being abused as they come into the United States and once they are in the detention centers. There is a high chance that they get abused on their journey, even to the border. 

This can also be about the children next door. It may be someone in your neighborhood that has experienced sexual abuse and is a part of the Latinx community. Several of these kids are at high risk because their parents are undocumented. This can be used against children when they are told to keep quiet. One thing I know about sexual abuse from all my years in private practice and teaching courses is it is the secret abuse. A major component of power and control is for the abuser to tell the child that it is a secret and they are not supposed to tell.

The children of undocumented parents are often taught to fear law enforcement in the United States. They are told not to talk to police officers, teachers, social workers, or clergy about trauma in the home. Telling someone could mean that their whole family could get deported. What child wants to lose their home or their parents? 

I was working at a school district in rural Iowa about 15 years ago. As a bilingual social worker, I was reporting abuse. At the time, the school district was 78 percent Latinx in a mostly white state in the Midwest. There was a high number of kids being sexually abused. The school board actually questioned the role of the social workers they had hired. The all-white school board thought that I was somehow the cause of an increase in children being abused. The truth is that these children had already been abused and nobody had been at the school that were masters in social work and could speak Spanish. This example shows that it is not just about kids at the border. Child prostitutes and human trafficking are factors as well. These children are being sexually abused every day. Additionally, many immigrants are children who come with their parents or other adults. However, some of these kids come completely by themselves. You can imagine that their risk of being abused is even higher at that point.

Unaccompanied Minors Apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol 

Figure 1 represents the number of unaccompanied minors who were apprehended by border patrol in the United States:

[Figure 1]

This is a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol report from 2019. If we are looking at the peak in 2014, almost 70,000 undocumented children were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Depending on their age, the condition, and how they were apprehended, they were either set back across the border or put in a detention center. The numbers are still alarming and high. There were over 50,000 children apprehended without an adult in 2019. 

As we talk about undocumented children, there are people who assume all immigrants crossing the border are Mexican. The percentage in Mexico has actually gone down. Those from Guatemala and Honduras are still coming to the U.S. These are ideas about some of the kids who may be at risk for sexual abuse when they cross the border. I want you to keep these statistics in mind, and these are only the children who are apprehended at the border. Think about how many more actually get across or are already living in the U.S. undocumented. It is important for social work practitioners to stay up to date on this population.  

Types of Latinx Immigrants

There are documented and undocumented Latinx immigrants. There is an idea that undocumented immigrants share stories of risk, danger, hope, conditions of extreme poverty, bottomless needs, and loss of family. Some of these families live in third-world poverty situations. They are considered even more impoverished than the most impoverished group in the United States, which is often Native Americans. What we are looking at is families who do not have access to government resources because they are undocumented. Many people do not have access to any landlord or tenant rights. They end up living in trailers, apartment buildings, or even rural farmhouses that have no plumbing. They have their children living in unsafe and unsupervised situations. 

I want you to keep in mind that this is not because the parents are bad people. I have met some of the most amazing and hardworking parents who brought their children to the United States and are undocumented. However, they can end up living in extreme poverty. 

Unfortunately, another thing we know in social work research is that poverty is correlated with child abuse. When I teach my child welfare courses at the university level, I am always telling students to not misconstrue and say that poverty means children are going to be abused. There are amazing parents who live in poverty. But it is unfortunately correlated with an increased risk of child abuse. There are all sorts of factors there, but these children are definitely at risk for that.

Predators of Undocumented Children

Here are some of the predators of undocumented children:

  • “Mexicans”
  • “Americans”
  • Soldiers & Border Patrol
  • Gangs & Organized Crime
  • Transients
  • Mother Nature
  • Clergy
  • Detention Camps

There is the idea of getting a coyote to take the child across the border. This could either be in the trunk of a car, in a train, or walking or swimming across the border. Whichever way, many families pay someone for safe passage across the border. When I say “Mexicans” and “Americans” in air quotes, it means that these are human beings on both sides of the border that are involved in the smuggling of families back and forth. These folks do not have any regulation and are not under the radar of law enforcement. They are sometimes corrupt law enforcement agents and are not protecting the families. I have talked to several families who had a decent experience with their border crossing. It was traumatic, but the person that was hired to bring them across did not abuse them. However, these folks are potential predators for undocumented kids coming across. Additionally, soldiers include border patrol on either side. 

Crime is a large entity at the U.S./Mexico border, as well as on both sides. The El Paso area encompasses both, but there is a very high presence along the border. Kids may be abducted by gangs and get involved in gang activity. They are therefore more likely to be trafficked, abducted, and raped. Also, transients are people that do not live on either side of the border and are definitely predators. Mother nature is a predator in this situation as well. Some of the main causes of death when crossing the border are things like dehydration or exposure. They need clean socks and clothes to help prevent infections or for when it gets cold at night. 

Clergy are individuals in religious organizations that are of service to the family. Unfortunately, we know that there are times when the people whom the family trusts are the people that might be trafficking these kids or abusing them. Remember that predators against children within the Catholic church or any church is a delicate topic. Kids might be crossing the border with some sort of intention of getting help from a religious organization, and will then be abused that way. However, there are several religious organizations that do amazing work at the border. Let us not stereotype and assume all clergy abuse children, but it could be happening.

Detention camps are definitely possible predators of sexual abuse. There have been several reports of children saying that they were sexually abused in the camps by employees. I find that highly probable. However, the children are often discredited or there has been a long legal chain of command, even if it was decided as a substantiated case or not. 

Sexual Abuse Among Undocumented Latinx Children & Adolescents

When talking about sexual abuse among undocumented Latinx children, the research is virtually nonexistent. There is very little information on the intersection of ethnicity and sexual abuse. There is even less research on undocumented children and sexual abuse. Some of the most profound research that came out on the topic is one report from over 10 years ago. It says that 23 percent of Latinx children report sexual abuse. More data indicates that Latinx children of immigrants are five times more likely to be confirmed as victims of childhood sexual abuse. Even though this information is old, I share it because this is still some of the most correct, empirically-driven data I have found. 

The reason it is so difficult to get to these numbers is because how do you research secret abuse? The numbers are low if it is a substantiated case because not all children report, so not all people get caught. Also, how do you research children who are undocumented? They are even less likely to get help. 

Children may also be victims of human trafficking for prostitution and pornography. That vulnerable population of Latinx children is often off the radar of helping professionals. Like I said, these children are told to not talk to teachers, coaches, clergy, social workers, or police officers. A regular side effect of abuse within this population is keeping it a secret from their family. Their family would certainly not want them to keep abuse a secret. Some of the children I have worked with had to report sexual abuse and the families were devastated. The question they ask themselves is, “How did I not see it?” We know that undocumented children have been told by their parents from a young age to not trust or talk to the police or their parents will have to go away. It was an unintended consequence that their child did not ask for help. 

Barriers to Reporting Abuse

There are also cultural barriers to reporting abuse. Here are some of those barriers: 

  • Cultural Values: Shame, Familismo, Respecto
  • Intense Fear of Deportation
  • Religious Importance of Maintaining Virginity in Some Families
  • Homophobic label for male victims of child sexual abuse
  • Little Contact with Service Providers
  • Language Differences
  • Lack of Trust

There is fear of the shame that it would bring to the family to have either a survivor or a perpetrator of sexual abuse in the family. “Familismo” means “love of family,” which is important. Family comes first and if a child is being sexually abused by a family member, they will not tell anyone. “Respecto” means respect, and in this case, it means respect for elders. This would include whoever is abusing the child. Respecting the family system would mean keeping that abuse a secret. There is also the intense fear of deportation. These children are taught from a young age to not do anything that would cause deportation. 

There is the religious importance of maintaining virginity in some families. The majority of Latinx families are Catholic and virginity is an important factor among many immigrant families. If a child, especially a female, has been sexually abused, it may be important for the family to keep that a secret. Even if the parents did not perpetrate the abuse, they might make sure that the child does not get help or make it public because they want to make sure the child and their perceived virginity is protected. 

Another factor is the homophobic label for male victims of child sexual abuse. I lived in Venezuela for an academic year and I learned that some Latinx families believed that it was not okay to be gay. I am hoping that things are changing and my intent is not to generalize. As a social worker that comes from an accepting family, I was shocked by the homophobia I experienced. Social workers have to be anthropologists in the sense that we need to be respectful of a person's culture and where they come from rather than judge it. After working in rural Iowa, I learned that if a boy was sexually abused by a family member or extended friends, they would blame him for the behavior and say that he was gay. This is concerning because the families were not giving their child the care or emotional nurturing that they needed to survive a sexual abuse incident. Years later I ended up working with a Latinx man who had been sexually abused in Mexico for a number of years. When he told his mother, he was beaten and told he was gay. If his father ever found out, he would have disowned him. The family got the uncle away from him, but the police were never called. This is not just a factor in Central and Latin America, it is also here in the United States. They also may receive more physical or emotional abuse from their own family when they try to seek help. 

Language differences and little contact with service providers are huge barriers. I am always telling my social work students that even if they cannot speak Spanish, learn some in order to show respect. Oftentimes family members translate when someone needs to talk to a teacher, police officer, or doctor. You do not want the children being the ones who have to translate when the child was the one who was abused. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

I want to point out Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented here by Figure 2: 

[Figure 2]

When we are working with these kids, we are working towards biological and physiological needs. This includes air, food, drinks, shelter, warmth, safety, and sleep. Sometimes in order to get these things, they are put in situations where they are sexually abused. 

I bring this up because we will be talking about trauma-informed care. What is trauma and how do you identify it? What do you do once you identify it? With Maslow's hierarchy, we need to remember that we are not working with children at higher levels. These kids need protection, security, and stability. If it is an undocumented child, they may have gone without all of these things for an unknown amount of time. We need to work on keeping them safe and stabilizing them in order to build trust. 

Understand Immigrants May be Experiencing Traumatic Stress

Understand that immigrants may be experiencing traumatic stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They have been in situations where a prior or current event has caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror. This has a debilitating effect on a person's ability to function, communicate, make decisions, and feel safe. I want to add that if they are undocumented, they may potentially be without a guardian. It is important that these children have a social worker. That is the most important thing as far as the type of help they need unless there is a medical condition and they need a doctor. 

Coming from this place of help, we do not want to traumatize them any more than they already have been. We should not react to their situation by being horrified ourselves. As social workers, many of us have been in positions where child abuse may bring tears to our own eyes. That is a part of being human, but be aware that you need to stabilize this person first before we have our own reaction. 

Trauma-Informed Care

A traumatic event is when a person experiences actual or threatened death. Some people may say that victims of sexual abuse were not threatened by death, but they were. There is an actual fear of losing something, losing themselves, serious injury, or the threat to the physical integrity of self or another. 

Here are some other things to remember when it comes to response: 

  • Intense fear
  • Helplessness
  • Horror
  • Attachment Issues

Understand the Impact of Trauma

Our response to trauma tends to be fight, flight, or freeze. Another one I include is submit. This means participating in the abuse because that is how they think they will survive. This is different from freeze because that means becoming immobilized. You cannot talk, move, or run. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse have talked with me about that split decision to survive and submit. They often shut down nonessential tasks and rational thought is less possible at this time. 

As we are asking these children or adults who have been abused to recount their experience, we need to remember that they may have shut down at that time and the events were not processed. If you are working with an undocumented child and they are talking about their sexual abuse, it is hard to prove that there was a stranger along their journey who abused them. However, despite this, it is important to believe them. This is because their story may be confusing and have conflicting evidence, but that may also be because of the type of abuse they endured. 

Trauma-Informed Care: Three Phases to Treat Trauma

With trauma-informed care (TIC), there are three phases to treat trauma:

  1. Safety and Stabilization
  2. Processing of Traumatic Material
  3. Reconnection and Reintegration

How to Help Creating Safe Spaces

This first focus is on getting stabilized. Focus on their physical wellbeing, medical health, and their sleep. Make sure they feel in control of their own body. Help them establish a daily routine. This is because if they had been traveling during the abuse or do not know where their parents are, they will not feel any security. 

Remember that trust takes time. As a social worker, you may be viewed as a threatening person who could hurt them. You need to take time to build trust and make sure they know you are safe. When I was a school social worker, I would always tell the families that the school district and I were a safe haven. We did not report to local or federal law enforcement about immigration status. Even with that knowledge, it would take some families months or even years to trust the social workers. For example, my colleague from Ecuador gained their trust much quicker because she was Ecuadorian. 

Techniques for Helping Children

After gaining their trust, they are ready to go into the therapy part of dealing with sexual abuse and trauma. 

These are the three factors here:

  • Play Therapy
    • Universal language for children 
  • Narrative Therapy
    • Used as a way to listen to the “story” in the immigration experience
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
    • Specific model of CBT called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is useful for treating victims of sexual abuse.

I consider play therapy a universal language for children. It does not matter the language, religion, or sometimes the type of abuse of the child. If you get a certified play therapist or use some play therapy techniques, interacting with the child at their level with universal toys can help them process. 

Narrative therapy is used as a way to listen to immigration stories. It allows them to understand that their experiences can be processed with you in a way that is not traumatic.  

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TFCBT), has been found to be effective in treating victims of sexual abuse. There are some techniques with CBT that allow people to identify the triggers from past trauma and make different decisions on how they behave related to those triggers. 

Narrative Techniques

The practice of narrative therapy is culturally competent. This means that a person's identity, sense of self, and culture are important in their healing process. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is more of an empirically-based scientific approach to going through steps to address certain triggers. 

Narrative techniques are a holistic view of working with someone. I would use these techniques while working with anyone that has experienced trauma or abuse, not just sexual abuse. It comes from this basic assumption that we all “story” our lives in order to make sense of what has happened to us. This helps us build resilience. The person you are working with can be a survivor and not be stamped as a victim of their abuse.

The client is in control of their own story. They are the expert in the situation as well as their own culture. I may let them know I speak Spanish in the case of working with Latinx immigrant children and I have done research and studied in both Central and South America. However, I am not Latinx or an expert on their situation. I am a fellow traveler on their journey. This allows the client to do some more self-exploring. They can explore why they had the reaction they did and what they did to survive. I am not telling them how I would have been resilient. I often teach my students that as a social worker, we have a metaphorical toolkit of resources to help someone who has been abused. The biggest thing is to empower them and leave them with tools of their own. 

We want to ask reflective questions about new possibilities. We are in no way trying to paint a picture and say the abuse never happened. We are instead looking for a survivor within that incident. This can make a difference for a young person who has experienced traumatic sexual abuse, especially with being undocumented and other factors as well. Techniques from our toolkits and skills for resilience can help them throughout their life. 

Help Trauma Victims Connect & Reintegrate with Self

Some of you may be in private practice and have the luxury of working with a client long-term. However, some of you may be in a hospital social work setting, youth shelter, or detention center. You do not have a lot of time with these kids, but you can work hard to develop trust with every kid you come in contact with. We want them to know that there are people to help and instill ideas that empower them. Narrative techniques can work in short-term situations as well. 

One of my bilingual colleagues interviewed women on the East Coast who had crossed the border and experienced terrible abuse. She kept hearing a theme over and over in Spanish, and the phrase meant, “I was in between the sword and the wall.” In English, it translates to “a rock and a hard place.” This means being in a really difficult situation. In this case, the person she was interviewing had experienced sexual abuse along her journey multiple times. This concept is much more serious than a rock and a hard place. It is being up against a wall with the sword to your throat, making a decision to survive and submit to the sexual assault, or to get the sword. That narrative coming up in her research really exemplifies the power of words and how it relates to narrative therapy. This is such a powerful metaphor for how they felt because it was life or death. Getting inside that narrative can help empower them for being ready for surviving. For example, in this case, they are already understanding that they had no choice. 

We want to figure out how the child develops a new, healthy identity, and sense of self. You want them to understand the importance of trust, relationships, and their surrounding environment. When they leave your trust bubble, you have been working with their family to do so. They need to be able to leave and reintegrate into society in a way that allows them to trust other people. This will help with their mental health and ability to get resources in their future in general. How do they trust people again? 

Integrate a theme of resiliency. Narrative therapy is important here because it helps trauma victims connect and reintegrate with themself. I continue to mention narrative therapy because the concept of reintegration and resilience is about taking control of their story. 

With strength-based practice, look for the exception or unique outcome. That can be a narrative technique as well. As undocumented children go through therapy, what is their unique outcome? For many survivors I have worked with, their unique outcome is that they made it to the United States. Those are important things to keep in mind. 

Application of Culturally Competent Practice with Immigrant Children

Remember that regardless of the ethnicity of the social worker in the United States, we are looking at working with a child who is new or was undocumented when they came here. Unless you are an immigrant social worker yourself, there is a cultural learning curve. 

Here are ways to be culturally competent:

  • Consider the use of social influence & cultural bias.
  • Avoid the deficit hypothesis.
  • Recognize your own prejudice.
  • Understand the concept of color blindness vs. color neutral.
  • Move towards cultural pluralism.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Learn more about ethnic groups in your community.
  • Expose yourself to others different than your own.

First, consider the use of social influence and cultural bias in your work. We are all biased and use some sort of cultural influence. We need to look at your own prejudices but also keep that in mind as you are working with Latinx families. Where are my shortfalls? What are some assumptions I am jumping to? 

As social workers, we can be guilty of jumping to the deficit hypothesis and we want to avoid this. This comes from Robert Brammer, who is a social worker and scholar on cultural competency. He says that as a helping professional, you assume you have no racial issues or biases of your own and that you are going to save the day. This is due to being focused on the fact that people you are interacting with have a deficit.

A generic example of this would be having a student who is doing her internship for the Department of Human Services. Someone walks in who looks Latinx and she immediately thinks they need a translator. When the person comes up to her and they speak English just fine, that is the deficit hypothesis. This is the idea that because we are advocates with training under our belts and good intentions, we quickly jump to help when we suspect a deficit. Just because we have had this workshop does not mean every child who has crossed the border has been sexually abused. There are children who cross the border and are undocumented who are not traumatized. We never want to assume. 

Understand the concept of color blindness versus color neutrality. It is important to make sure that we are aware of all different racial and ethnic classes with the populations we work with. However, it can get complicated. For example, a dark-skinned child in a family I worked with was called “little Negrito.” I felt like it was racially offensive. I then found out that it means “little blackie” and they called him this because he was the darkest child in the family. He was very loved and was not offended by the name. Those are things to be aware of. 

Move towards cultural pluralism, not colorblindness. We do not want to teach social work students that all cultures and races are the same. We want to look at the many different cultures and races. We want to integrate and learn as much as we can. Learn from your mistakes and expose yourselves to other people. 

It is best to do this before working with certain families. If you are doing emergency room social work, I do not expect you to go research their culture. Just be as aware as you can. We are all learning, including me. We always want to learn how to better our practice, and that is being culturally competent. 

Realize that we do not always have the answers. That is also where narrative therapy loops back in. Even as children, they can tell you about the stories that are passed down from their parents. This can include how their family feels about the abuse they endured, why they were told to keep quiet, if they felt shame, and so on. It is culturally relevant to let them be the expert. 

Recommendations for Practitioners

Here are some recommendations to remember:

  • Show respect & accept hospitality.
  • Trust “confianza” is extremely important.
  • Learn from the client's narrative – what is their story?
  • Become familiar with cultural norms and, if working with children, key folktales, history of the village, etc.
  • Careful not to label family overly enmeshed.
  • Try not to be an Anthropologist!
  • Apply the concept of cultural competence.

Regarding cultural norms and working with children, notice if there is something important as far as healing that goes along with the family and culture with an undocumented family. Make sure that you learn from them and help them heal in that way. I have also learned that the Bible can be important in the healing process for Latinx families. We do not have to have the same religion or beliefs as a family we are working with, but it is important to respect, learn, and participate. This is because the healing is not about us teaching someone how to heal from sexual abuse. It is about them, and part of that is us allowing them to use their cultural resources to do so. 

Be careful not to label a family as over enmeshed. Latinx families are traditionally close. Do not assume that the parents are perpetrators if the male children still sleep in bed with their parents. Be aware of a close family versus an abusive family. 

Try not to be an anthropologist. I know I said earlier that we have to be anthropologists in another culture, which is to put ourselves in another's shoes and respect their culture rather than judge it. However, there is a fine line between respecting the culture and also being involved. There is a lot to be said for respecting the family enough to step back and be culturally competent when it comes to dealing with trauma with this culture. However, you also want to make sure that you are also an activist. We can help after we have learned. 


Here are some resources that you can always go to for data:

  • Pew Hispanic Center
  • U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division
  • National Public Radio
  • The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
  • Migration Policy Institute

I get a lot of information from National Public Radio about immigration. I have also talked on National Public Radio about the topic. That is the place that you can go and look for current affairs related to immigration. Also, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a whole section dedicated to Latinx families. 

The Migration Policy Institute is fascinating because it has a report for citizens that want information on what is going on at the border. They have the statistics, but they also have some reports on sexual abuse. 


Refer to the course handout for a complete list of references. 

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april dirks

April Dirks, PhD, MSW, LISW

Dr. April Dirks is a Professor of Social Work at Mount Mercy University and holds a PhD and MSW from the University of Iowa. She has extensive clinical experience in the mental health field as a private practitioner and is a Licensed Independent Social Worker. As a therapist, she specialized in narrative therapy, crisis intervention, depression, child abuse, and other emotional issues. Dr. Dirks has also served as a school social worker and bilingual family therapist working with at-risk youth, immigrant families, and family trauma. In addition, Dr. Dirks’ special topics of interest in teaching and research include child welfare, cultural competency, suicide, at-risk youth, Latino families, trauma, and human sexuality.

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