As a record number of children fled violence from Central America and crossed the Mexican border alone this spring, most were sent to large-scale emergency shelters that the Biden administration quickly opened at United States military bases, convention centres, and fairgrounds.
Transitional foster homes, where families are licenced to care for migrant children, are widely considered to be the best option for children in US custody, especially for minors who have been traumatised, are very young, pregnant or are teen parents and require extra emotional support.
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Providers say in recent months, interest in fostering migrant children is booming, with Americans getting vaccinated against the coronavirus and virus-related restrictions on daily life being lifted. They are urging the government to move more kids into foster homes.
By May more than 22,000 migrant children were in US government custody, as the US grappled with the highest number of migrants arriving at its southern border in 21 years.
Chris Umphlett and his family hosted a 12-year-old girl from Honduras for a month in their Michigan home while US officials contacted and vetted her mother, who lives in Texas. She barely uttered a word when she arrived after crossing the Mexican border alone.
The couple and their four young children, who live in the city of East Lansing, invited her on walks and bike rides, and watched Disney movies with Spanish subtitles. A Honduran woman from their church made a home-cooked Honduran meal of meat and red beans and tres leches cake, which got a smile.
“I imagine her first introduction to the US was probably not super friendly, was probably confusing,” said Umphlett, 37, who works for a software company. “We tried to give her a better experience.”
While there are not enough families licenced yet to take in the thousands of children in US custody, advocates say homes could take many of the kids under the age of 12 and other vulnerable youth, such as pregnant teens, now at the government’s unlicenced shelters. At the Los Angeles County fairgrounds in Pomona, last week there were some 300 children under the age of 12 among the nearly 1,400 minors housed there.
The risk of psychological and emotional harm grows the longer kids are in shelters, according to a June 22 federal court filing by the attorneys monitoring the care of minors in US custody as part of a long-standing court settlement.
At the end of May, when about 500 transitional foster care beds were unoccupied, there were 5- and 6-year-old children who had spent more than a month at the shelters, according to the court filing.
“What a child receives at a shelter will never compare to the love of a parent caring for a child,” said Kayla Park of Samaritas, the provider that connects the Umphlett family with migrant children. “They might tuck them in bed at night or maybe the family’s children play with them. That kind of human interaction is so necessary and it can’t be replicated in a shelter.”
The administration of President Joe Biden said it is not a matter of simply filling beds. Some siblings might have to go to a shelter to stay together or to have the space to quarantine if someone tests positive for the coronavirus, so there is a need to leave beds unoccupied to deal with circumstances as they arise, US Health and Human Service Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters last week.
“You take a hit trying to completely maximise your space,” Becerra said when asked about unoccupied licenced beds after visiting a shelter that houses 800 children at Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso, Texas and that has been plagued by complaints.
Providers agree that foster care is more complicated for placements because age and gender must be taken into account, especially in homes where the migrant children might be sharing rooms with the family’s children, like in the home of the Umphletts, who only accept girls 12 and younger.
And the pandemic restricted things further. Many families did not want to take a child directly from the border for fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.
Other families were not equipped to take in someone while they worked at home with kids doing virtual learning, like the Umphletts, who did not take anyone until March of this year.
But providers, such as the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, are seeing a huge increase in families interested in fostering migrant kids, providing an opportunity that should be seized, said its director, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah.
“I truly believe if we invest and focus on building out this network of prospective foster care parents, these homes can and should be the medium to long-term solution so we don’t have to rely on influx facilities in the future,” she said.