By Kelly Berger, vice president of special operations at the Board of Child Care in Baltimore, and Jennifer Jones is the director of the Change in Mind Institute at the Alliance 

Since 2014, the Caminos program at the Board of Child Care (BCC) in Baltimore has helped unaccompanied immigrant youth overcome the trauma they face when coming to the U.S. alone. Often fleeing environments where they have experienced extreme poverty, abuse and neglect, persecution, and the impact of horrific gang violence, these young people have already been exposed to significant and acute adversity and trauma.  

The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been significant for unaccompanied youth and immigrant children and families. Families in detention centers are now being forced to choose between keeping their families together or letting their children leave the center to protect them from the virus. A federal judge recently ordered that all children currently held in U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody be released by July 17, 2020 to prevent further spread of the virus among this population. At the writing of this blog post, children are still being detained despite the judge’s orders. Since the start of the pandemic, the federal administration, under the guise of a public health crisis, has turned back over 2,000 unaccompanied children at the border in violation of federal law.  

The Unaccompanied Alien Children Program is managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Most children are placed into the care and custody of HHS when they are detained at the border or after their arrival in the U.S. Children are provided age-appropriate care and wraparound services in one of 170 facilities and programs in 23 states funded by ORR.  

As a trauma response center, the Baltimore-based BCC works with youth to identify their triggers, help them understand the impact of trauma, and help them consider the skills they will need to be successful living in the U.S. Using a two-generational approach, the care team also engages with family, both here in the U.S. and in the child’s previous country. Embracing family members as collaborators in caring for the youth validates the importance of those relationships and provides a strong foundation upon which the youth can be prepared for the next stage of their journey.  

As part of the reunification process, family members must commit to ensuring that youth released to their care are promptly enrolled in school, connected to a pediatrician, and attend immigration hearings to pursue their legal cases. Completing these tasks in normal times can be challenging, but the pandemic has further heightened those challenges. Youth are unable to be enrolled in school and immigration courts are closed, pushing back any sense of permanency even further. Many of the family members have had their immigration cases paused and are now out of work and not eligible to receive unemployment or stimulus benefits. Even more significant is that these youth are being released to communities that have been hardest hit by the virus, where resources are limited and where people are often fearful to seek medical care due to perceived risk of deportation. Those working in essential jobs have limited ability to social distance given the nature of the work they are being asked to do.  

With the onset of the pandemic and the decision to temporarily close the southern U.S. border, programs that serve unaccompanied youth have seen a rapid and immediate decline in the numbers of youth coming into their programs. Federal law mandates that HHS transfer unaccompanied children to ORR funded shelter programs, like Caminos, within 72 hours. These unaccompanied children are now being turned away without conducting adequate screening and without referring these youth to ORR programs. By failing to comply with the protections afforded to unaccompanied children by U.S. law, border officials are establishing conditions in which these youth are being exposed to further extensive trauma and placed in situations where their health is at risk and they are ripe for exploitation.  

The fear, stress, uncertainty, and racism these children face will have significant lifelong impacts. We know from the research that living in prolonged toxic and stressful environments can change brain architecture in young children and can often lead to many negative physical and behavioral health outcomes later in adulthood. According to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “sudden, forcible separation of children from their parents is deeply traumatic for both the child and the parent. This triggers a massive biological stress response inside the child, which remains activated until the parent returns and provides comfort.” Parents play a crucial role in alleviating the stress that children face, and supportive, caring, nurturing relationships can help mitigate the negative outcomes associated with trauma and adversity.  

The Alliance for Strong Families and Communities applauds HHS for supporting community-based organizations in the provision of vital services to unaccompanied youth using child welfare values, trauma-informed care approaches, and keeping the best interest of the child at the forefront. We urge the administration to comply with federal law and protect the health and well-being of these unaccompanied youth by doing adequate screening and sending them to the appropriate ORR shelters, as directed by federal law. By not providing critical care and services and supports to these youth, the U.S is putting thousands of children’s lives at risk.  

Contact the Alliance if you are interested in in participating in a conversation with other members about working with the unaccompanied (alien) children program through the ORR.