In the News: Connections to Child Life

ACLP Bulletin | Summer 2019 | VOL. 37 NO. 3


The Border Crisis: Our Ethical Responsibility

Katie Nees, MSHS, CCLS
Child Life Disaster Relief

The ongoing crisis at the US-Mexico border has been filled with political tension, to say the least. There are drastically opposing opinions, controversial proposed solutions, and strong feelings surrounding conflicting moral ideals. It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid getting swept up in the emotions of that controversy. Many, but not all, feel it is our human responsibility to get involved in the politics to impact positive change. For the purposes of this article, however, I’d like for us to step aside from the divisiveness of the issues and take a closer look at what unifies child life specialists on this topic.

There are several points in the child life Code of Ethical Responsibility (Association of Child Life Professionals [ACLP], 2011) that can be applicable to the current border crisis. Two of them in particular speak the loudest on this topic and are a unifying force for our profession regardless of one’s political stance. They are Principle 2: “Individuals shall strive to maintain objectivity, integrity, and competence in fulfilling the mission, vision, values and operating principles of their profession” (ACLP, 2011, p. 1) and Principle 3: “Individuals shall have an obligation to serve children and families, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, economic status, values, national origin or disability (ACLP, 2011, p. 1).” When it comes to our professional responsibility on this issue, these ethical commitments require us to look beyond the disagreements and unite together in our focus of serving all children and families equally, without exception, and with objectivity and integrity. That is our professional and ethical responsibility.

Ten child life specialists have deployed through Child Life Disaster Relief partnerships to work with the children impacted by this crisis. Many more child life specialists have worked with children and families affected by the border crisis within their healthcare settings. There are cultural dynamics and differences that play a role in the we choose to implement services based on our assessment of the child and family's individual needs at any given moment. But one thing stays consistent: All children are vulnerable to trauma and all children need adults in their lives who understand child development, coping, and resilience and who are trained to help.

One of the stories that I have heard from those deployed for the border crisis that has left a deep impression on me is an example of the respect the volunteers in the respite center show all of the guests. Arriving by bus, the refugees unload at the respite center as they follow government processes. They file into the building, at which time the volunteers pause their tasks for a moment and stand up, applauding and shouting “Welcome!” The child life specialists in the respite center report that this greeting is met with surprised expressions and gradual smiles, as the new arrivals relax a little with a collective sigh of relief.

Leah Nawrocki, CCLS, from Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI, described one powerful interaction she had with a preteen boy during her border crisis deployment. Although Leah speaks Spanish, this particular boy spoke a different dialect and her communication with him was a challenge. Even with that difficulty, she was able to provide significant support for him as he processed through all of the hobbies and norms of his previous life and how those things might be different in this new country. “Despite the simplicity of the conversation, it was clear that my words would have an impact.” Leah later reflected, “No one had been able to fully answer his questions about the United States; how schools are organized and other unique aspects of living here.” Leah was able to live out our child life professional responsibility of serving children and families regardless of who they are, where they have come from, or how they have arrived.

The Border Crisis: Our Ethical Responsibility

Kat Leibbrandt, CCLS, from Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL, is another child life specialist who deployed for the border crisis. She describes her experience and her commitment to objectivity during her deployment as well as in her daily professional work within healthcare:

I remember feeling the nerves and adrenaline in the hours leading up to my travels. For weeks, the conflicting opinions and divisiveness from all news outlets, social media posts, and in daily dialogue was often overwhelming, especially considering I was preparing to go to ground zero of the issue. I think as child life specialists we are often faced with challenges in regard to objectivity. When a non-accidental trauma is flighted in, or when working with a premie in the NICU who is battling withdrawal, you have to offer support to the family. There truly are countless examples. When your job is to care for these children and advocate for their well-being, remaining objective can often be an internal battle. I think that this trip was no different. No matter where you stood on that subject matter, seeing a woman who is eight months pregnant, knowing that she just put herself and her unborn child in harm’s way to enter the walls of this welcome center is not easy. To hear a child speak of his firsthand experience riding standing room only in an aluminum trailer with dozens of other people from city to city to be able to arrive a hikeable distance to the border is heart wrenching. However, through it all, when I am sitting with this mother or this child, personal emotions must be placed aside, and compassion must shine through. In that moment, they do not need to see pity; they do not need me asking questions so I can better understand what made this treacherous journey worth it. They need love. They need kindness. They need someone who says, “Welcome. We are so happy that you are safe. I feel so thankful to have this time to sit with you.”

Objectivity, integrity, and a commitment to serving all children and families is our responsibility without exception. It is an honor for us to unite together and use our child life skills despite any other differences of opinion we might have on this or any other issue.


Association of Child Life Professionals. (2011). Code of ethical responsibility. Retrieved from