An Under Recognized Trauma: Sibling Abuse

Amy Meyers, PhD, LCSW

Editor’s Note:  The author responded to our invitation for guest blogging for NASW-NYC Connections.  If you are interested in submitting a piece, please email us.

Sibling abuse is an understudied phenomenon that continues to receive little attention. Curiously, intake and psychosocial assessments in social service and mental health agencies continue to focus on the quality of parent-child relationships. Assessment regarding the nature and quality of sibling relationships is either neglected or minimized.

A widespread societal belief holds that most siblings have conflicts and fights while growing up, and that these conflicts are normal. This may be. However, sibling abuse is NOT sibling rivalry! There are distinct differences between normative sibling rivalry and sibling abuse. With sibling rivalry, children have an equal opportunity for advantage or disadvantage. Sometimes, one sibling is hurtful to another; and another time the other sibling is hurtful. Sibling abuse indicates pervasive, ongoing damaging behavior from one sibling to another in which there is intent to harm by the abusive sibling and an induced sense of fear, shame, and hopelessness in the victim. While sibling rivalry fosters skills of communication, negotiation, and competition, sibling abuse does not warrant any positive outcomes.

It is interesting that as a society we have rallied to the cause of bullying: through media, anti-bullying legislation, and outraged parents. I would posit that bullying could be termed peer abuse. In much the same way that we distinguish peer teasing from bullying, we need to distinguish sibling rivalry or sibling aggression from sibling abuse. There are parallels between peer teasing and sibling rivalry and between bullying and sibling abuse. And, thankfully, serious measures have been taken to protect children from peers in the realm of bullying. As a society we have acknowledged the devastating influence a child can have on another child – physically or emotionally. We also need to pay attention to the devastating implications of siblings who abuse siblings.

A child who presents with academic issues, behavioral issues, a depressive disorder, or anxiety disorder may be the target of sibling abuse.  Practitioners who are aware of the influence of sibling abuse are able to recognize how to help each sibling involved in the abusive relationship, the family system, or the adult who has this traumatic past. Sibling abuse is not only a psychological issue for the victim, but also representative of a dysfunctional family system in which the dyadic relationship or the behavior of the perpetrator is a symptom of greater pathology.

Additionally, failure to assess the nature and quality of sibling relationships or the developmental history of an adult client can have profound effects on the survivor. Consider how this experience may influence one’s sense of self, mood, career, and relationships.

Most of us have siblings. Yet I often wonder how many of us consider the influence of those relationships on our current interpersonal relatedness and general functioning. At workshops where I have trained staff on sibling abuse assessment, I invite attendees to consider many facets of their own current and historical relationship with their sibling(s).  Most acknowledge that this is the first time they have reflected on this.  Yet, they are well-aware of the impact a parent(s) has had on his/her own development. Giving consideration to our own dynamics, countertransference, transference, and projections is a fundamental aspect of practice.  Be curious about your own experience with a sibling – and be curious about those you treat.


Amy Meyers, PhD, LCSW is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at The College of New Rochelle. She has consulted for the Administration of Children’s Services and has provided trainings on sibling abuse assessment and intervention to the Department of Social Services and staff at mental health agencies in NYC where she also maintains a private practice.

Posted in Disaster & Trauma, Social Work Practice | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Transgenerational Transmission of Primary Trauma in Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer

Laura Royse, LCSW

Editor’s Note:  October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we hope that you find this post helpful in your work with clients experiencing trauma related to a diagnosis.  The author responded to our call for guest blogging.  If you are interested in guest blogging, please email us.

According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, 2.3 million adult women in the U.S. are at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer based on family history1.  Breast and ovarian cancer that runs in families with a mutation in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene is considered hereditary breast and ovarian cancer (HBOC).  Women with a BRCA mutation have a significantly higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer compared to the general population.  Men who carry a BRCA mutation have an increased risk of developing breast and prostate cancers2.  Both women and men have an elevated risk for pancreatic cancer and melanoma (BRCA2).  Women with BRCA mutations must decide, sometimes quickly depending upon age, whether to proceed with frequent pre-screenings or pursue a prophylactic mastectomy and/or oophorectomy in order to significantly reduce their risk of cancer.

Psychosocial Implications

The psychosocial impact of HBOC is vast.  Resilience to trauma depends heavily on the family’s history of loss, premorbid and comorbid functioning, and existing support systems.  Nevertheless, high functioning people may experience disturbances in mood and anxiety as they learn to integrate their genetic history, present, and future.

HBOC threads itself throughout generations of families. Many families affected by HBOC have one or more members who died from breast and/or ovarian cancer and leave a legacy of trauma for future generations.  For example, a young mother (20-40 years old) with a known BRCA mutation who develops cancer may transmit her anxiety about her own cancer to her children.  This woman may have to cope with issues such as intensive treatment, surgery, changes in body image, concern for a recurrence of cancer and new cancer diagnoses, and possibly mortality.  These issues may last for years and are particularly significant in families with young children.  If a child inherits the BRCA mutation, she must not only reconcile the secondary trauma passed on by her mother, but potential primary traumas of her own as she copes with complex decisions about how to manage her risk. This inherited anxiety may also play a role in her defense against seeking genetic testing.

Women with BRCA mutations may re-experience feelings associated with the loss of family members, such as mild to severe anxiety, depression, isolation, flashbacks, somatization, and/or hypervigilence.  These symptoms may occur at the time of testing positive for a mutation, during the time leading to a prophylactic surgery, upon learning and treatment of a cancer diagnosis, and when a new family member (especially a close relative) is diagnosed with cancer or tests positive for a mutation, all of which may be experienced as new traumas compounded by her family history.  In addition, young women with BRCA mutations often feel forced to make advanced decisions for her life stage, particularly regarding family planning.  Mastectomy and reconstruction may cause distortions in self-body image and negatively affect sexual relationships with new partners and spouses.  Parents with BRCA mutations may experience displaced guilt for passing the mutation to their children.  Likewise, family members who do not have the gene mutation often feel a sense of “survivor’s” guilt.  Therefore, discussing family history and potential risk with children may be anxiety-provoking, but not impossible with proper support and guidance.

Treatment Considerations

Clinical social workers in agency and private practice have a unique opportunity to support individuals and families coping HBOC.  When working with this population, clinicians must be mindful of countertransference.   Most people know someone or have a family member who has had cancer.  As such, many clinicians may find it difficult working with a patient who refuses to pursue genetic counseling or prophylactic surgery.  It is imperative to understand a patient’s latent defenses and support their decisions.

If a clinician is working with a patient who has a strong family history of breast and/or ovarian cancer, it may be appropriate to suggest a referral to genetic counseling.  A genetic counselor can help your patient assess her risk and determine whether genetic testing is appropriate.  In addition, clinical social workers may refer patients for complimentary support, e.g., hospital-based support groups and Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered.   It is very common for people with HBOC to need to connect with others who are also at high risk.  In some cases, a referral for psychopharmacology is warranted.  Lastly, clinicians who educate themselves on HBOC, including common terms, will be better positioned to facilitate meaningful exploration and empathy with these patients.

People with HBOC must know that they are not alone.  Guiding patients to information and additional support, while lending a safe place to work though this journey, may be the most valuable way for clinical social workers to empower this population.


1   Genetic risk assessment and BRCA mutation testing for breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility: recommendation statement. Ann Intern Med. Sep 6 2005;143(5):355-361.65

2 (2010, February).  Hereditary breast and ovarian cancer:  Overview.  Retrieved February 7, 2012, from Hereditary+Breast+and+Ovarian+Cancer


Laura R. Royse, LCSW has been a clinical social worker providing outpatient psychotherapy for the past 7 years.  She is a clinical supervisor for Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens and operates a private practice in Queens.  In addition, Laura has been an outreach coordinator for FORCE (Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered) in New York City since 2010, where she provides support and information for women and families affected by hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

Posted in Disaster & Trauma, Mental Health | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Social Work Values and the Presidency

Gary Parker, MSW

Gary Parker, MSW

Editor’s Note:  This piece was published in our September/October 2012 issue of our newsletter, Currents.  You can access the full newsletter by clicking here.

The upcoming election boils down to a simple question: Does government get in the way of the well-being of its people thereby creating economic hardship and increased poverty, or should government intervene and provide supports that protect and assist those impacted by poverty? Some may say this is an oversimplification. However, this is the fundamental and ideological question that defines the two political parties and their respective candidates for President of the United States. The voters will decide the answer and it will have a direct impact on social workers across the country.

The social policies and programs that have been implemented starting as far back as the Great Depression are coming under fire by ideologues who believe that the economy has not improved because the government is providing services to poor and working class families. Their proposed solution is to cut those services and reduce the tax rates paid by corporations and the wealthiest of Americans in order to create more jobs and provide everyone the opportunity to prosper and thrive. Furthermore, they argue that social service programs only breed a culture of dependency and their elimination will empower a sense of individual responsibility.

This movement is directly at odds with the social work mission to serve individuals, families and communities in order to ensure that basic needs are met so that all can achieve an improved quality of life. Within the preamble of the NASW Code of Ethics, there are six core values identified as rooted in the profession: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. These values are being questioned, challenged and in some cases contradicted by conservative legislators. I’m not questioning the competence of those who want to cut taxes for the rich and eliminate social services and public sector jobs. I have no doubt they will be very good with a budgetary knife.

However, to advocate that addressing issues of poverty is not the responsibility of government, but a secondary by-product of successful corporations fails to recognize the dignity and worth of a person. Further, health and mental health services should not be reserved to those who can afford them. Publicly funded community health centers facilitate positive human interactions and dignify the importance of human relationships.

Most social workers are called to the profession by a deep rooted belief in social justice and a determination to elevate service to people in need. With increasing case loads and fewer resources, it is easy to set aside a coordinated effort for advocacy and change while we work to address immediate needs. However, if we let this trend to abandon the poor continue, we are doing our clients and profession a huge disservice. Further reductions in the publically funded safety net will result in enormous numbers of individuals, families and communities becoming impoverished and falling victim to the far too often violent consequences that accompany financial hardship.

This election is going to be decided by a small number of swing voters who may not be aware of the issues. Those voters might be your friends, families, colleagues and neighbors. Share with others your values and belief that society has a responsibility to respond directly to the privations created by oppressive and discriminating social, economic and political systems. Every vote is going to count, particularly given the highly organized efforts to suppress the vote of mostly low income communities of color.

Regardless of the outcome of this election, our work to advocate for the most vulnerable will be ongoing. Government run and publicly funded programs, although sometimes flawed, are not the cause of the country’s ills. We must do a better job of demonstrating the successful outcomes of social services. Our best strategy is not well-meaning political ideology lacking substance but policy positions grounded in sound research data that empirically documents our values in vital human service programs across the country.


Gary Parker is the Deputy Director of New York University’s McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research located within the Silver School of Social Work.  Parker is also an adjunct lecturer at the Silver School teaching community organization and social welfare policy.  He is a graduate of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.  Previous experience includes positions as district manager for Manhattan Community Board Five and community liaison for New York Assembly Member Deborah J. Glick.  He can be reached at  

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Dreams Deferred

Christiana Best-Cummings, LMSW, PhD

Editor’s Note: Related to this blog posting, you can access the NASW-NYC special issue of Currents ”Focus on Immigrants in New York City” by clicking here.

As the country gears up for one of the most significant political battles -the 2012 presidential election, once again immigration reform has taken the spotlight away from the economy.  While the national landscape has been enthralled with the slow economic recovery which originated with the 2008 financial crisis, the Republican debates brought attention to the immigration issue when Mitt Romney, the leading Republican candidate shared his immigration plan based in part on self-deportation. Recently, in the midst of the presidential campaign, with the national unemployment rate at 8.2 percent and the African American unemployment at 14.4 percent, President Obama shifted the public’s attention once again to the immigration issue by introducing The Deferred Action program.  Giving President Obama the benefit of the doubt, it is important to note that the U.S. Congress has failed to move forward on two very significant immigration legislations this year-The Dream Act and The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  So, with Congress’ failure to pass these two legislations, the devastating economic condition and the high stakes of the Presidential elections, Americans (politicians, immigrants and citizens alike) welcomed the digression.

With that as the backdrop, on June 16th, 2012, President Obama signed an Executive Order on immigration entitled The Deferred Action Program.  This policy puts a temporary stay (2 years to be exact) on the deportation of young people who through no fault of their own was brought to this country as children by their undocumented parents.  This is a small move in the right direction by the President to address the lack of action by Congress on The Dream Act and at the same time, it is life-changing for the young people, some 800,000 who are directly impacted by this policy, albeit temporary.


What is The Deferred Action program/policy?

  • If you are undocumented and traveled to the United States before the age of 16;
  • If you have attended school, or served in the military;
  • If it is determined that you pose no criminal or military threat to the country;
  • If you are currently 30 years old or younger.

Then you are eligible for a two year “stopgap” as the president stated. More importantly, you are eligible to work legitimately “on the books” without being deported for two years.  On the other hand, it is also important to note what this program isn’t.

What the Deferred Action Program/policy isn’t:

  • It isn’t amnesty or an official pardon;
  • It will not provide you with a green card;
  • It isn’t a path to citizenship.

To apply[1]for Deferred Action, you will need to meet a number of criteria, including the following:

  • Proof of identity;
  • Proof of arrival in the United States before age 16;
  • Proof of physical presence in the United States on June 15, 2012;
  • Proof of continuous residence in the United States for at least 5 years before June 15, 2012;
  • Proof of enrollment in school, or proof of graduation from high school, or proof of receipt of a General Equivalency Degree (GED) certificate, or proof of honorable discharge from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States.[2]

Prior to the Deferred Action program many undocumented immigrants from all over the world lived in fear of deportation which has become an integral part of their everyday life because of the increased number of people being deported today.  These immigrants travel to the United States from countries all over the world.  While Mexico has the largest number of undocumented immigrants -7 million to be exact, which is significant considering that the overall number of undocumented immigrants have been estimated to be 12 million.  The immigrant community and particularly the undocumented immigrant community include people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, South America, Central America, Canada and the Caribbean.

Regardless of the numbers, or the part of the world you’re from when it comes to being undocumented, you’re forced to live under the radar.  The life of an undocumented immigrant whether child or adult is a secret one.  You’re a member of an underground world built on fear and secrecy.  Your life is filled with trepidations at every turn-job searches, school enrollment and everyday activities that citizens and legal residents take for granted.  You have to be cautious every minute of your life and very afraid of sharing information with everyone around you including your neighbors, employers, friends and at times even your immediate family for fear that one day someone might say the wrong thing to the wrong person or if they get upset or angry with you they will report you to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  Children of undocumented immigrants who are themselves undocumented are particularly anxious.  Their anxiety is heightened due to the stories that are reported in newspapers and the underground network community of raids in the workplace or people calling the Department of Homeland Security on the “undocumented”.  The fear is further exploited by ghastly employers, and those who like bullying or intimidating the vulnerable.  It is also not unusual for American born children of undocumented parents to harbor fear as well.  Oftentimes they are preoccupied with concerns for their parent.  These children often ruminate   “What if when I get home from school today my parents are not home because they are arrested and sent back to their country?”  Nonetheless, the Deferred Action program has brought many young adults temporary relief from living in the underground world of the undocumented although their concerns about their parents continue to be anxiety provoking.

The President’s Deferred Action program has left many people skeptical given the fact that it is a temporary fix to a long-standing issue.  For many in the immigrant community this program is viewed as a small, momentary step with an indeterminate future, while others view it as a meaningful step in the right direction with a hopeful and optimistic future.   Some of the young people that are directly impacted by this program experience it as a tremendous relief because for the first time since arriving in the United States, they can “come out” from the shadows of the underground world and be part of the mainstream American community.  For the next two years they can work, go to school and most of all not live in fear of deportation.  Or can they?

The fear of deportation has become even more eminent in recent years than before because of President Bush’s and Obama’s immigration strategies to address the issue of border control in the Southwestern part of the country.  According to a CNN report on October 18th, 2011, nearly 216, 698 or 55 percent of the people deported in 2010 were convicted of felonies and misdemeanors, which mean a total of over 400,000 people, were deported in 2010. Additionally, with the current draconian stop and frisk policies and practices that many states and cities throughout the U.S. have instituted, these policies and practices have further contributed to the heightened fear many immigrants currently experience. May 12, 2012 New York Times reported that the NYC Police Department stopped and frisked over 203,500 individuals between January and March of 2012, which is up from 183, 326 for the same period from the previous year.  The demographics of the astonishing number of people the NYC Police reported that were stopped, questioned and frisked for the first three months of 2012, 54 percent of them are Black, 33 percent Hispanic, 9 percent white and 3 percent Asian with males making up 93 percent (NY Times, May 12, 2012).  Given these numbers many immigrants who are people of color are especially apprehensive of being stopped not because they have committed a crime but because they are undocumented and can be deported.  Policies such as Secure Communities (shared data base between law enforcement and ICE) as well as having Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) located in prisons further exasperate the trust and confidence of the immigrant community.

On the other hand, the immigrant community welcomes a policy that holds the tide back, even one that is temporary.  It is perceived as a refreshing transformation on the part of President Obama particularly when he stated “stopping the deportation of young people is the “right thing to do”.  Yet even with the President’s endorsement, many in the immigrant community are not sure if they can trust this program.  Living with fear for long periods of time has led to a “healthy sense of paranoia” among immigrants, not unlike that of other vulnerable people in American society historically (i.e. experimental medical studies such as the Tuskegee experiment). Although immigrants recognize the many benefits of the Deferred Action program for a small number of people in the undocumented immigrant community, given the fact that it is temporary, specifically two years, and there is no promise for a more permanent solution, and given the precarious political climate we live in with Romney clearly stating he will not support The Deferred Action program, as well as Congress’ inability to pass legislations put forth by President Obama, some undocumented immigrants are concern that “coming out” from the shadows can further lead to more harm than good in the future-post 2014.

At the same time for some immigrants (documented and undocumented) the reason for this change in policy and its motivation- political or not, is not so important.  They are grateful for the small steps, hoping it will one day lead to more significant, comprehensive and permanent solutions, such as The Dream Act, which provides a path to citizenship for the same young people that the Deferred Action is trying to help.  Another significant bill that has been pending in congress is the reauthorization of The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  This law was enacted in 1994 and recognizes the menacing and dangerous nature of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and supports comprehensive, effective and cost saving ways of addressing these crimes.  The revised VAWA provides protection for Native American women and same sex relationships.  Consequently, the hesitancy by some immigrants to fully embrace the Deferred Action program emanates from the ambiguous messages the immigrant community have received from the American government based on past and present policies/practices.

It would be remiss of me not to mention a law that is currently in place that moves us forward as a nation on the immigration platform; that law is The Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) Act.  This Act is frequently underutilized by social workers in child welfare because many social workers particularly those working in foster care are unfamiliar with it.   SIJS was enacted for children under the age of 21 who are in the child welfare system to provide these children with the opportunity to become permanent residents. The reauthorization of this law included protection from human trafficking.  More information on this law can be retrieved from the Office of Children and Family Services website, specifically (11-OCFS-ADM-01, 2/7/11).

If the recent Supreme Court split decision on Arizona’s immigration law SB 1070, is an indication of what the future holds, the legal resolution to the immigration problems facing this country, based on current trends signify a long tumultuous and at times ambiguous road ahead for immigrants and Americans alike.

[1] Application for the Deferred Action program begins August 15, 2012. For more information  regarding the Deferred Action application process and criteria go to

[2] For further information on the Deferred Action program contact -The New York Immigration Coalition at 137-139 West 25th Street-12th Floor; New York, NY 10001; (212) 627-2227. Or visit their website


Christiana Best-Cummings, LMSW, Ph. D., is a manager at NYC Administration for Children Services and has over 25 years of experience in public and private child welfare.

As an immigrant, Dr. Cummings is devoted to advocating and working on behalf of immigrant families.  Her graduate work focused on the exploration of Transnational Parenting for African Caribbean women from the English-Speaking Caribbean.  This body of work was complied in a book entitled: The Long Goodbye:  Challenges of Transnational Parenting, which was published in 2009. It details Dr. Cummings’ research and analysis of the impact of transnational parenting on both children and parents.

Dr. Cummings particularly enjoys staff development and teaching. She has worked as an adjunct professor for several years at Metropolitan College; currently, she teaches a class on the immigrant experience at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in which she highlights the impact of race, gender and the economy on various immigrant group experiences in this country.

Dr. Cummings has also been in the forefront of the exploration of the impact of race and disproportionality in child welfare. She is the co-chair of the Disproportionality in Child Welfare which is a subcommittee of the New York City Social Work Consortium.  This committee has facilitated symposiums on racial dispropotionality and disparity for MSW students that have been held at various Schools of Social Work.   She is also a member of the ACS Task Force on Racial Equity and Cultural Diversity.

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Creative Mentoring: Sustaining the Profession

If you were not able to make our 2012 Annual Meeting that was held this past May, don’t fret!  You can watch the video of our keynote presentation below!  Mary Pender Greene, our keynote speaker, brings a fresh perspective on mentoring. Also featured are three social workers mentored by Ms. Pender Greene: Ben Kohl, Sheilah Mabry and Kristy Perez.

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Social Work Practice in the Criminal Justice System

Editor’s Note: Dr. Patterson was asked to write a piece for our blog as a social work educator in NYC.  You can read his piece on Police Social Work from the July 2008 issue of Currents, by clicking here or you can access the full newsletter by clicking here.

I was inspired to write the book Social Work Practice in the Criminal Justice System because I felt a need for a comprehensive textbook that could be used by social workers and other criminal justice practitioners that was broad in scope. I wrote the book to address issues such as reentry, evidence-based practice and other practice issues with individuals throughout the entire criminal justice – from law enforcement contact through post-release supervision. My intent was to provide a greater understanding of the issues social workers face when they practice in the criminal justice system.

As a police social worker I would have preferred to have written the book exclusively on this area of practice, but police social work is such a small area of social work practice that a book exclusively in this area probably would not have a market. Social workers are perhaps employed in the greatest numbers in correctional, courts, law enforcement and legislation in that order.

Other practitioners across these four subsystems include legislators, law enforcement officers, attorneys and judges, correctional officers, and probation and parole officers, among others.

In the book I define practice very defined broadly at micro, meso and macro levels, and include advocacy, clinical services, research and policy roles. I also indicate that these roles are not exclusive to the social work profession.

Consequently, many practitioners who are not social workers also provide services in criminal justice settings and in non-criminal justice settings to individuals with criminal justice involvement.

The U.S. criminal justice system is a complex system in which three components are usually described (law enforcement, courts and corrections). A fourth component, legislation, is not always mentioned. Furthermore these components are found at tribal, local, state and federal levels. Social workers practice in each of these components and at all levels. Each component and level of the system presents unique challenges as well as rewards for social work practice. For example, these challenges might include working in a paramilitary environment, ethical dilemmas associated with confidentiality and individuals’ right to self determination, and acquiring the necessary skills to communicate with courts, police officers and other criminal justice practitioners using an approach that is often unfamiliar to the social work profession.

Rewards may include helping individuals with criminal justice system involvement to access much needed services and resources, or advocating for legislative reform to using a social justice perspective.

George T. Patterson, LCSW-R, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.  He can be reached via email at:, or via commenting below.  

For more information about his book, please visit the following link:

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My Story-Our Story

Christiana Best-Cummings

Editor’s Note: Related to this blog posting, you can access the NASW-NYC special issue of Currents “Focus on Immigrants in New York City” by clicking here.

As an immigrant, a woman, a social worker and a professor who teaches about the immigrant experience in the United States, I feel very connected to other immigrants throughout this country on many levels. And so I am keenly aware of the effects of restrictive immigration policies such as HB 87 in Georgia, HB 497 in Utah, SB 1070 in Arizona and HB 56 in Alabama. They are not only oppressive to immigrants; they are reactive, reductive responses to the complexities of the immigration issues in this country.

My mother migrated to New York City in 1969 when my sister and I  were 8 and 10 years old, respectively, leaving us at home in Grenada. As a single parent, for five years, she parented us from a distance while working three low-paying jobs to support all of us financially. She worked days, nights and weekends, taking any job that came her way to keep us sheltered, fed and clothed. During the entire time, she had two dreams: (1) to be reunited with her daughters and (2) to provide us with an opportunity to get an education so we could be self-sufficient and not subjected to the same exploitive and repressive working conditions she had to endure for so long.

Today, my mother has an Associate’s degree, my sister has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and I have a Ph.D. in Social Welfare. I am indebted to my mother for her sacrifice, endurance, work ethic and for her commitment to my sister and me. We grew up knowing that being an immigrant meant having to work hard and make sacrifices. As a result, our number one role model is our mother. My son now is on his way to realizing his dream as well–and not only does he have his dad and me as his biggest supporters, he is blessed with the support of his aunt and grandmother.

My family’s story is not unlike that of other immigrant groups that came before and after us: English, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, Asians, Africans, Mexicans, etc. As an immigrant, I am dedicated to help others who are faced with horrendous restrictions, such as HB 87–which forces some women to choose between being killed by their abusers or deported. If this policy had existed for the early immigrant groups that this country recruited, welcomed and supported generations ago, we wouldn’t be the country we are today. Instead of engaging in these knee-jerk responses, Americans two-, three-, four-, and five-generations removed from their ancestral migratory experience should come to the table and find solutions that work in the best interest of the country, while keeping in mind, There but by the grace of God goes my ancestor.

Historically, whenever the United States is experiencing economic difficulties, it has responded with restrictive, oppressive legislation and policies that are punitive to immigrants, especially people of color. This was evident with the slave trade of African immigrants, the Chinese Exclusionary Act of 1882 and the deportation of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression (many of whom were U.S. citizens).

Yet although there has always been anti-immigrant rhetoric, policies and practices–including against the early immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe–eventually these groups have assimilated into the American society. So I ask myself, why have the protracted discrimination and punitive laws against certain groups persisted for such an extended period of time? The answer, I suspect, is that race, color and physical characteristics have prevented these new immigrants from hiding or assimilating. Even if they change their names, they can’t change their skin color, physical characteristics or their race. Immigrants today are punished twice. They are punished for being newcomers and also for their racial and physical appearance.

For these immigrants there is no melting pot. They are denied access to the American society. Every possible obstacle is put in their way when they try to adapt. I realize how fortunate my family was because at that time we arrived in New York, we were not faced with restrictive policies such as Georgia’s HB 87. It could have happened to us. I cannot stand apart from the struggle of today’s immigrant.

Reprinted with permission from MomsRising and Ms Magazine. Part of a blog carnival accompanying the “We Belong Together” women’s delegation to Georgia September 28-29, which aims to expose human rights violations brought on by Georgia’s anti-immigrant bill HB 87.


Christiana Best-Cummings, LMSW, Ph. D., is a manager at NYC Administration for Children Services and has over 25 years of experience in public and private child welfare.

As an immigrant, Dr. Cummings is devoted to advocating and working on behalf of immigrant families.  Her graduate work focused on the exploration of Transnational Parenting for African Caribbean women from the English-Speaking Caribbean.  This body of work was complied in a book entitled: The Long Goodbye:  Challenges of Transnational Parenting, which was published in 2009. It details Dr. Cummings’ research and analysis of the impact of transnational parenting on both children and parents.

Dr. Cummings particularly enjoys staff development and teaching. She has worked as an adjunct professor for several years at Metropolitan College; currently, she teaches a class on the immigrant experience at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in which she highlights the impact of race, gender and the economy on various immigrant group experiences in this country.

Dr. Cummings has also been in the forefront of the exploration of the impact of race and disproportionality in child welfare. She is the co-chair of the Disproportionality in Child Welfare which is a subcommittee of the New York City Social Work Consortium.  This committee has facilitated symposiums on racial dispropotionality and disparity for MSW students that have been held at various Schools of Social Work.   She is also a member of the ACS Task Force on Racial Equity and Cultural Diversity.

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