GRAND RAPIDS — Bethany Christian Services Inc. faces a difficult challenge in trying to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children who cross the border into the United States avoid any long-term effects from the detention process.
The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit has a government contract to place up to 114 children at a time into transitional foster care. Bethany currently is caring for more than 70 of the affected children on a regular basis, but recently added East Lansing and Holland to expand its transitional foster care network.
Liz Tompkins, capacity manager for refugee and immigrant children services in Grand Rapids, said the organization is looking for families in those municipalities to offer short-term care, giving the children a chance to avoid being housed in a detention facility.
“We see quite a range of ages, everything from parenting minors who might be 17 years old with a 1-year-old, to children who are 4 and under, and a lot between the ages of 5 and 12,” Tompkins said of the unaccompanied migrant children.
However, unaccompanied teenagers represent the largest group in the program. The government is housing many of them in detention facilities, such as the more than 2,000-bed temporary shelter in Homestead, Fla. that’s been garnering headlines and political attention in recent months. Even children under the age of 12 are ending up at the facility, according to Tompkins.
“That’s why we’re expanding our numbers and looking for more foster homes,” Tompkins said. “These kiddos have already been through so much in their home country and on their journey here. Their needs are not being met as well in these large-scale detention facilities.”
Conditions at detention facilities such as Homestead have been widely reported in the past few months as children detained there have described to attorneys and human rights officials a lack of access to basic hygiene products such as soap and inadequate access to food.
Tompkins said a growing number of children have been housed at the border in these facilities for more than 72 hours.
“We have received some of these kiddos and some of their stories are just heart-wrenching about not being able to shower for seven days or not having access to meals,” she said.
The cost of housing a child at a facility such as Homestead is $775 per bed per night, while the average cost in a Bethany-operated foster care home is about $200, which varies daily depending on the number of children in foster care, said Nate Bult, the nonprofit’s vice president of public and government affairs.
“We’re a nonprofit and facilities like Homestead are for-profit,” Bult said. “Children staying in our foster care homes have all of their necessities paid for.”
Bethany is among a number of agencies that receive government funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to defray the cost of caring for refugee populations, including unaccompanied minors, said Dan Rink, chair of Bethany’s board and a partner at Grand Rapids-based Buiten & Associates Insurance LLC.
Rink said Bethany has ongoing fundraising campaigns for all of the services it provides and has no plans to undertake a specific fundraiser for the transitional foster care program. He added that while the organization hopes for a resolution to the underlying issues that are causing the unaccompanied minors to flee, Bethany is standing by and ready to help the children in the interim.
“The important part for us is that there are families who care enough to care for these kids,” Rink said.
As the stories of the unaccompanied minors began bubbling to the surface last year, Bethany officials noted an uptick in the number of individuals seeking information about providing foster care.
The children in Bethany’s program are unaccompanied refugee minors or have special immigrant juvenile status, meaning they entered the country legally and have access to a range of services.
Bethany places these children in the transitional foster care programs until they can be reunited with family members or other sponsors. The agency has operated the transitional services in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Paw Paw since 2012.
People interested in becoming foster parents undergo 40 hours of training, while state licensing can take from two to six months. Bethany officials are working with the state to see if that licensing process can be expedited, Tompkins said.
Once a child is placed in the transitional foster care program, they can receive clinical and case management services, medical and dental care, and schooling in Spanish.
“For some of these kids who have traveled to the border, they know exactly where they need to go,” Tompkins said. “They’ll have a telephone number written on a gum wrapper or a piece of paper that has been folded up five times and taped to the inside of a shoe. They also may have two different phone numbers memorized. We get information from the child or Customs and Border Patrol officials and verify the relationship between the child and their sponsor.
“This can be a pretty lengthy procedure and we need to make sure it’s a safe and appropriate placement for the child.”
The majority of the families these children are reunited with live outside of Michigan.
“It’s very rare that we have someone in Michigan that we’re reuniting,” Tompkins said.
Time of transition
The average stay for a child in the transitional foster care program is anywhere from 50 to 60 days.
The placement request process moves at a fast pace, with foster families having a window of 24-36 hours before a child or multiple children arrive on their doorsteps, Tompkins said, adding that it can sometimes be much quicker.
In addition to the quick turnaround, families also face challenges related to the language barrier. Not every family speaks Spanish, although the staff at Bethany is bilingual and interpretation services are available. Even so, Tompkins acknowledges this is a relatively minor obstacle in comparison to what these children have been through to get to this point in their journey.
“It’s important to realize that these kids have been through multiple types of trauma, extreme violence or poverty,” she said. “Then there is the trip itself and what circumstances they traveled under.
“There’s a lot of transition, one right after the other. It can be taxing and it can go a variety of different ways. We encourage people interested in becoming foster families and we want them to play a pivotal and supportive role in a child’s life.”
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