Undocumented Children Become Part Of Foster Care System
NOEL KING, HOST:
Thousands of migrant children have yet to be reunited with their families. They were separated as part of the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy. There are a lot of questions about how these kids are going to get back together with their parents. But we do know where many of them have gone. Here's White House chief of staff John Kelly on NPR last month.
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JOHN KELLY: The children will be taken care of. They're put into foster care or whatever.
KING: He is right about foster care, says Sherry Lachman. She's the founder of Foster America, a nonprofit that works with the country's child welfare agencies. She was also a domestic policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden. And she says undocumented kids become part of the federal foster care system that is run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR.
SHERRY LACHMAN: The vast majority of these children are in institutional foster care, congregate facilities in which many children are housed together.
KING: And Lachman told me why she thinks foster care is not the best way to serve these children.
LACHMAN: I think it's important to start with the understanding that separating a child from her family and placing her in foster care in the first place is like chemotherapy. It's inherently toxic and damaging to the child, so it should only be used in cases where it's absolutely necessary to protect that child. And of course, the situation at the border is clearly not one of those cases.
KING: So I want to get to some of the specific things that we're talking about with migrant children. What are the challenges for the people looking after the kids? And what are the challenges for the kids?
LACHMAN: For the people looking after the kids, there are several challenges that they have to deal with. First of all, if they don't speak the child's language, that creates an incredible barrier between themselves and the child. And you can imagine being in a home where your caretaker can't communicate with you. It's terrifying. Then another challenge is, of course, the trauma. Most of these children have already experienced trauma in their home countries, and then you compound that with the extreme trauma of being separated from their family.
KING: With all of this news that we've been hearing about these children and about the separation, are foster care centers overwhelmed? Are individual homes overwhelmed?
LACHMAN: The part of our country's foster care system that takes care of unaccompanied immigrant children - and now children who have been separated from their parents at the border - is completely overwhelmed. And they're wholly unprepared to deal with this increase because, one, they had no time to plan for it. And two, the kids separated from their families who have now flooded their system are very different than the kids they're used to supporting. They're used to working with youth who were old enough to cross the border on their own. And now they're dealing with infants, 5-year-olds, 9-year-olds who are separated from their parents after crossing the border with them.
KING: One possible outcome here is that, rather than parents and children being separated, the entire family is just deported together. That way, there's no separation. But the family goes back where they came from. What do you think about that?
LACHMAN: It's both child abuse and a violation of children's rights to separate them from their families. That's one of the most horrific things you can do to harm not only their development as children but their lifelong outcomes. And you're also violating the due process rights of parents and children by sending them back home without a fair hearing on whether they can or cannot receive asylum. I'm not saying that none of the families should be sent home. I'm saying let's comply with the U.S. Constitution and our rule of law.
KING: I want to play a piece of tape for you. NPR talked to Terence Shigg, who's a longtime Border Patrol agent, on Saturday. And here's what he told us about kids who are being taken from their parents.
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TERENCE SHIGG: We've taken them. We've put them into a shelter. We've given them food. We've given them clothing. We've put them in a climate-controlled environment. And we are protecting them. And then we are processing them in a humanely and as expeditiously as possible. And I would challenge them to explain to me how that is immoral.
KING: To be clear, Border Patrol doesn't oversee the placement of migrant children into foster care. That is, as you've said, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR. In essence, he's saying we are human beings, and we're treating these children humanely. What do you think about that?
LACHMAN: I think that's a farce. These kinds of separations and placing children in these jail-like institutional facilities has lifelong consequences for their development and their future education, employment and ability to live as healthy adults.
KING: Sherry Lachman is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Foster America.
Sherry, thank you so much for joining us.
LACHMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.