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Catholic Charities President On Housing Separated Children


Federal health officials have asked the Department of Defense to help house up to 20,000 young migrants traveling without their parents. So what might many of those children need as they wait on foster care placements or the chance to reunite with their families? I put that question to Heather Reynolds. She is president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Fort Worth, Texas. It's a nonprofit that takes in children referred by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, ORR, as she refers to it.

The group is currently housing a dozen kids who are separated from their families at the border after fleeing violence in Central America. Reynolds says the kids need clothing, medical care and legal aid. And perhaps more than anything, they need someone to listen and to care.

HEATHER REYNOLDS: So much of what we do in the - oftentimes, it's usually about two to four weeks that these children are with us - is really about stabilizing that child because that child has undergone significant trauma. And a lot of times, we spend the first few nights with the child, you know, waking up, crying or with nightmares because they have undergone something pretty, pretty tough - that journey and then also the trauma of being separated from family. Our main goal is to just really begin to make them feel safe again.

MARTIN: Have you spoken with any of those kids? Do you know where they've come from, what they've gone through?

REYNOLDS: The kids that we have right now - our youngest in care is 5, and our oldest is 12. Five are from El Salvador, four from Honduras, and three are from Guatemala. It's a mix of males and females. And all of them were going through pretty traumatic experiences back home, which made them come on this journey with their family to begin with. And so our big thing right now is just making them feel safe and getting them reunited with family.

MARTIN: So what are those conversations like - because we have heard even officials with the Trump administration say that there is no process yet to reunify children and parents who've been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border? So what do you tell them?

REYNOLDS: So I think when people say that, a lot of what they're saying is - in President Trump's executive order, it did not specifically state what the plan was for reunification of this heightened time that we just experienced over the last seven weeks. There is a process, though, that we do have currently about reuniting family members and their children. And so you know, we have had parent separations before the last seven weeks. We definitely have seen that heightened over the last almost two months. But we are continuing to follow the guidance that ORR gives us to file the paperwork, the incident reports, all of that that's necessary to try to reunite parent and child.

MARTIN: So you know where these kids' parents are? You have the ability to track them down.

REYNOLDS: Not in all cases. But yes, there are many cases where we are able to get in touch with family members. Now, again, we're in a very heightened time period, which makes things much, much harder than it has in the past.

MARTIN: But you still - you have to tell these kids - you have to say something that gives them hope. Right?

REYNOLDS: We do. So the kids all know that our goal is to get them back in contact with their parents and back placed with their parent and that we can't promise them anything. We don't know if that will be in the U.S., back in their home country. You know, we will definitely work to get their parents' input on that. And so a lot of times when parents do get deported, we will contact that parent and ask if they want the child deported back as well or if they would like the child to be with a relative in the United States. We want the parents to have as much say in that as possible.

MARTIN: If I could ask you about the politics of this moment - the bishop for your diocese, Michael Olson, has criticized the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy. He described it as sinful because it, quote, "undermines the right to life of the vulnerable, directly traumatizes those who have already been injured and undermines the role of legitimate authority."

What do you make of that? Do you share his view?

REYNOLDS: Absolutely, I share that view. And I stand in solidarity with our bishop. And as a Catholic, our utmost thing as a church is really right to life, respecting life, the dignity of the human person and family. And when we compromise that, we are really off our moral compass as a country. And so just as the bishop spoke out very clearly to the Trump administration about what was happening on the border, he also expressed gratitude for the president's executive order. And I definitely stand in solidarity with the bishop on that.

MARTIN: Heather Reynolds, she is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities Fort Worth, Texas.

Heather, thank you so much for talking with us.

REYNOLDS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.