Migration from Central America to the United States has steadily increased over the past ten years and has reached crisis levels. Migrants include thousands of children without a parent or guardian. Contrary to the Trump Administration’s claims that these children are gang members, most are fleeing record levels of gang violence and poverty in their home countries or are seeking to rejoin family members. Since 2012, border patrol has apprehended over 300,000 unaccompanied children, many are placed with family members or other sponsors, and, increasingly, in indefinite detention. A smaller number are placed in foster care under the oversight of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Research on the wellbeing of unaccompanied immigrant children can be difficult because they are often an “invisible” population. Through our partnership with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), a major provider of foster care and family reunification services for these children, we were able to learn about the unique needs of unaccompanied children in foster care, and how to improve services to meet these needs.
Children who experienced violence in their home countries prior to migrating, and children with significant behavior problems, were significantly more likely to change placements.
In one study, we analyzed LIRS administrative data to explore predictors of disrupted foster care placements for 256 children. Foster placement disruption is an important measure of child wellbeing and functioning. Our study found that 68 of these children (26.5%) experienced one or more changes in placements. Children who experienced violence in their home countries prior to migrating, and children with significant behavior problems, were significantly more likely to change placements. Health professionals should be aware that many of these children have faced unusual adversities. Addressing children’s behavior problems, through a trauma-informed approach, may improve their placement stability and overall wellbeing.
Another aspect of our partnership with LIRS involved identifying unaccompanied children’s needs in foster care, and how practitioners respond to these needs. We conducted 22 focus groups with caseworkers, clinicians, administrators, and foster parents caring for unaccompanied children in two sites, one in the Midwest, and one in the Northeast. Practitioners said that children do best when they have strong relationships with mentors in the community: teachers, coaches, foster parents, or peer mentors.
Foster parents said they are “ambassadors” for their foster children, by educating and humanizing people’s perceptions of these children and helping tone down political rhetoric.
Education came up often because many children from Central America only have a primary school education. Some children don’t speak English or even Spanish, particularly if they are from Guatemala where 21 different Mayan languages are spoken. Helpful educational supports include GED trainings, tutoring services, special education, support from guidance counselors, and vocational training. Practitioners also identified the need for culturally sensitive, trauma-informed mental health care. Foster parents said they are “ambassadors” for their foster children, by educating and humanizing people’s perceptions of these children and helping tone down political rhetoric.
We are entering a new phase in our country, where the federal government is placing many more unaccompanied children in detention centers rather than releasing them to family members or sponsors. Detaining children indefinitely runs directly counter to child welfare principles of placement in the least restrictive environment and has been denounced by the American Association of Pediatrics. The UN Convention on Rights of the Child specifies that detention be “used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time” (Article 37b). The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers concluded that “detention or the separation of families for purposes of immigration enforcement or management are never in the best interest of children.” The national conversation about asylum-seeking children and families needs to shift from a perspective of a threat to our national sovereignty, to one simple question: how can we best respond to a deepening humanitarian crisis? The quality of our national character depends on it.
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