Thousands of minor children are coming to the United States border from Mexico and Central America, many without parents or other adult relatives. (According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 8,975 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border in March 2019, accounting for nearly 10% of all people detained at the border.)
Many of these unaccompanied minors are ending up in large government-run shelters. Bethany Christian Services, a Grand Rapids, Mich.,-based child welfare organization accredited by the Christian Reformed Church, believes there’s a better way to take care of these children.
Dona Abbott, Bethany’s director of refugee services, testified before the U.S. Congress earlier this year that the government should consider home-based foster care for these children and close down large shelters. She has continued to follow up with members of Congress to push for change.
“It’s an ongoing process of educating members of Congress on what is actually happening on our southern border and the needs of those children and families,” Abbott said.
Over the last five years, Bethany has served more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors, connecting them with foster families. The need for foster families to receive unaccompanied children continues.
“In total, we need foster homes for nearly 200 unaccompanied children at a time,” said Nate Bult, Bethany’s vice president of public and government affairs. “Right now, we have capacity to provide care for about 130 unaccompanied children. We always need families that are willing to provide a safe, loving, temporary foster home.”
Abbott said the biggest challenge for her agency is finding foster families to take in children 12 years of age and younger. “The average age of a child we have in our traditional foster care for unaccompanied children is around 7½,” she said. “Those children need a family setting, not a large shelter with hundreds of children in them. These are children that need a lot of individual parenting.”
Abbott said that while having a large-scale facility to house unaccompanied children may seem to be a more efficient model for handling the numbers of children coming to the border, it actually presents difficulties in trying to assess what each child needs.
“It’s harder to get that individual information from a child when you have hundreds of children in a shelter,” she said.
In his advocacy with the government, Bult has pushed the idea that finding foster families to take care of children is not only better from a humanitarian perspective but also is a more effective use of taxpayer dollars.
“Families are better for children, and it’s more affordable to care for children in temporary foster homes than in those large facilities,” he said.
While Bethany is working to find foster families for unaccompanied minors, it also seeks to reconnect these children with their families whenever possible. “The goal is for these children to be reunified with their families so that they’re not in long-term foster care,” Abbott said.
Since 2013, Bethany has directly reunified more than 2,000 families and helped to reunify more than 5,000 families, Bult said.