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What Happens to Migrant Children Separated from their Parents?

A Migrant Child’s Path from the U.S.-Mexico Border to U.S. Foster Care

Migrant child-parent separations have been all over the news in the past week, motivating President Donald Trump to recently issue an executive order banning family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. By that time, however, more than 2,000 children had been separated from their parents — and almost 6,000 unaccompanied, minor children had been lost within the federal system.

What exactly happens to migrant children who are separated from their families at the border? Where do they go, and how do they get “lost” within the U.S. foster care system?

Why Were Migrant Children Separated from their Parents?

Before we dive into the intricacies of the U.S. foster care system as it functions with U.S. immigration, there are a few important things you need to know.

A new immigration policy announced by the Trump administration in April ordered prosecutors along the border to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for those crossing the border illegally. This means that all migrants who crossed the border — whether they were seeking legally recognized asylum or had children with them — were arrested and sent to detention centers for prosecution.

In the past, children were allowed to remain with parents who were being prosecuted for these illegal border crossings. The Trump administration did something different. Border officials separated children from their parents awaiting prosecution with the intent of placing them with relatives or friends inside the United States. Officials argued this would provide children a safe home while their parents were awaiting prosecution.

However, because of the large number of migrants and their children, the process was not as quick as officials would have liked. This led to children being separately detained from their parents in chain-link enclosures at holding facilities.

Where Do Migrant Children Go Next?

These current holding cells are not meant for long-term detention; in fact, it is illegal for children to be held there longer than three days. After that, they are supposed to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Before now, this office dealt mainly with unaccompanied minors who crossed the border on their own — usually older teens. Today, there is no clear answer as to how young these children are when they are permanently separated from their parents and placed into government care.

While these children are kept at these ORR shelters, government officials take steps to locate family members or sponsors with whom the migrant children can be placed. ORR officials say children usually stay in these facilities “fewer than 57 days on average,” although some children have been detained for months longer. As more children continue to cross the border, these ORR facilities continue to fill up.

Any identified family members or sponsors for migrant children are exposed to intense scrutiny before placement, including proving they can provide for the minor (sometimes with verified home visits) and ensuring the minor will attend any future court hearings. Other requirements include criminal background and immigration status checks of all members of the households. This delays the securing of placements for migrant children, especially if their family members are currently living undocumented in the United States and are rightfully frightened of working with federal officials.

If a sponsor is found, the child is placed into the care of that adult. That placement will function similarly to a foster care placement — in which a foster parent provides temporary care for the child until a parent is able to complete a reunification plan. Adoption of that child may be an option later for that adult. While about 40 percent of migrant children are placed with family members other than their parents, about 10 percent of children are placed with non-related individuals through the foster care system.

If the children’s parents are released from detention, they can usually take custody of their children. However, there seems to be no formal process for tracking children and parents within the system, meaning it is incredibly difficult for eventual reunification to occur — whether a child remains at a detention center or is placed with a foster parent.

What Does It Mean that Migrant Children Have Been “Lost?”

As mentioned, when migrant children are separated from their parents, attempts are made to place them with a relative or sponsor. Because this is, in effect, a foster care placement, there are certain requirements that must be met — including post-placement visits and check-ins.

However, a new report says that in May alone, nearly 1,500 unaccompanied minors were placed with sponsors who did not keep in touch with federal officials. When it came time to locate these children for reunification with their parents or for post-placement visits, they or their sponsor could not be contacted. Federal officials maintain these children aren’t “lost,” but that their sponsors did not respond to phone calls. However, that reassurance means little to that child’s parents or to children’s rights advocates.

These 1,500 children are only a fraction of the 7,635 children officials have reached out to — which is also a fraction of the almost 43,000 children placed with sponsors in 2017.

What’s even more worrisome is that, in the past, DHHS did not require any meaningful proof that the people presenting as family friends really were — leading to a notable case in which six children from Guatemala were turned over to human traffickers.

It’s a heartbreaking subject, but proper understanding of the process for these children is the first step to helping solve this problem. So, how can you help? Consider donating to organizations working for family reunification along the border, or simply reach out to a local foster care organization to help the children in need in your area today.