Foster Mom Reflects on Six Years Caring for More Than 100 Central American Children

A Central American child makes the dangerous trip to the American border, where he will be taken into the Unaccompanied Alien Children program. Photo: University of Nebraska-Omaha

The Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program began in 2003 as part of a recognition by both political parties that when children arrived alone at our border, often in search of safety from circumstances back home, they warranted special protection. Under UAC, a network of shelters and foster homes managed by the Department of Health and Human Services cares for children while a family member in the United States is located who will care for them as their legal request to stay here moves through the court.

At first, it was a relatively small operation, funded at around $350 million. In the early 2010s, the number of unaccompanied youth arriving at the border began to rise sharply. By 2014, the program was so choked with incoming children that military bases had to house thousands of them. Since then, the capacity has expanded and the budget of UAC has skyrocketed into the billions.

The surge of 2014 under President Obama, and the Trump administration’s use of UAC to house kids separated from their parents at the border since then, have made the program a political hot potato. The entire network of providers that contract with Health and Human Services is under a strict gag order not to talk about their work with the media.

One Michigan foster parent for unaccompanied children agreed to speak with The Chronicle of Social Change under the condition of anonymity. She and her husband have cared for more than 100 unaccompanied children since becoming licensed through Bethany Christian Services in 2013. We talked about what it has been like to care for these kids as the program moved into the media spotlight.

Did you have experience as a foster parent before this?

I adopted three kids through domestic foster care. I was a teacher for 19 years, and after we adopted, I quit.

How did you become connected to this particular program?

After we adopted our kids, we decided to let our license go. We hadn’t told anybody, just had prayed about it.

Bethany called, and said we’re starting this new transitional foster care for unaccompanied children. I thought, ‘Oh my word, that is perfect for us.’ A couple weeks later, we had our first kids.

Domestic foster care can be pretty open-ended – the plan might be to quickly reunify, but that might not be reality. Is this a more definitive timeline, is that why it was better for you?

Yes, I’d say that is true. For us, we could not have continued in domestic foster care. If this program hadn’t come along, we would have been done with domestic foster care.

We are also handing them off to people [the sponsors, often parents or family] that work hard to get them home. The workers say you need to do this or that, and they do it.

When we have a kid come into our home we … always know they’re leaving. And that helps emotionally. It’s super hard to say goodbye to a child, but at the same time, with domestic foster care the reunification is more uncertain.

Do you remember the first child who came to your home through the unaccompanied children program?

I’m laughing because I’m picturing it exactly. Three little boys, all between 6 and 10, brothers and a cousin from Honduras. I spoke almost no Spanish, I knew like five words.

They came with just what they had on. We all sat there at the table, we gave them coloring books, and they were just working on stuff, happy to be in kind of a safe spot. Honestly, I can’t stress that feeling of relief on their faces enough. They seemed content to not be on that same type of journey they had been on for over a month.

How did that first time go?

It was overwhelming at first. They eventually really started to struggle. We had one of the boys, before bed, we told him to take his shoes off and get in the bed. All of a sudden he’s speaking in Spanish, having a massive meltdown.

Bethany has been great about support, so we had a therapist on the phone, and a caseworker that night. Our neighbor speaks Spanish, and we finally got to the bottom of it. He had never had a pair of shoes like that – we had bought them for him – and he thought we were going to take them away.

One of the other little boys, every time a man walked into the room he’d react strongly.

I’m thankful for getting those first three, that was a pretty big early lesson. And we learned all the Spanish swear words. After that, we’d have kids that would swear just for reaction and we’d just stand there, pretending not to follow. But because we weren’t reacting, it rarely led to conflict.

In your conversations with these young people, what have you come to understand about the situations they left?

You’d look at these kids and think they appear fine. It amazes me some of the stuff they’ve been through, and what they’re used to seeing.

We had a set of girls that went to school during the day and told teachers they saw police picking up a dead body on the side of road. We had driven by police and an ambulance helping a biker who had fallen, he was just injured.

“Ohh,” they said, “in our country, dead bodies are dumped on side of the road.” To us that makes news. They acted like it happened often.

The stories of their journey, how they are moved by the coyotes through are awful.

We had two girls, they were taken to a spot in Mexico to an abandoned house. People would come for them in the morning, they were told, and the coyotes left. One was a preteen, the other 13. They sat there all night long, waiting for someone to show up. Who would they go to if someone tried to do something to them?

One older boy said he had been working since 15, driving a bus. We told him, here you have to go back to school. He really struggled with that.

So it is kids you’ve grown to really love who went through some of this stuff. I would also add that to me it’s inspiring. So many have endured many things. Many have endured hardships that I will never experience, yet they smile, and sometimes learn to trust you. I’ve been given the opportunity to help the children feel accepted, loved for who they are, and help them understand and experience American culture.

Most of these children come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Do you find that the experience of these kids is similar in those three countries? Or are the situations very different from their telling of these places?

Definite similarities, yes. The Honduran children, the situations generally seem more desperate. In Guatemala, it’s more intense situations, different things that have happened, like their mother was murdered. El Salvador, it is more financial kind of stuff. That is just what I’ve noticed, it’s not like I have stats to back that up.

Has language continued to be a barrier for you? That seems tough, not being able to communicate.

My three kids know it fluently. My daughter is leaving for Honduras soon. She’ll have no problem at all, and she’s so excited to be going where so many of our kids are coming from.

I know enough to get by. My husband is still struggling, but he knows enough to communicate through hand signals.

Ballpark, how long do most youths stay with you? And has that average changed in recent years?

It always seemed like two months. Now, it seems like the cases are more complex in nature. And so, I kind of feel like I don’t know. I would say that now, due to the more complex cases, that the timeline is way more unknown than when we started.

A lot of [sponsors] are afraid to step up now. They don’t want to participate and get fingerprinted, be on the radar, and that has made some people say no. And we have had some kids voluntarily deport; I’ve seen that more lately.

In addition to yourselves, what other local adults do the children you care for come into contact with?

Bethany has their own school for this program. They go there year-round, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Our family members – my mom got licensed to do this as well. In domestic foster care our kids could spend a night at my mom’s. With the unaccompanied children program, they have to be in the home of a licensed caregiver. So now she can do respite.

Church is always a big deal. We don’t have a lot of Spanish speakers, but have some things in Spanish. And we drive a ways to do it, but we’ll go to Hispanic church at night sometimes.

I want them to be able to hear things in both languages. They are entering an English-speaking world, and we want them to understand some American things. Camping. Or bowling. That way, when they are sitting in class and someone talks about going camping, they realize these aren’t scary things. So we try to expose them to as much cultural stuff as we can, so they understand what things are.

We have a group of parents in our area that also works with unaccompanied children, and our group is very close-knit. All the families rely on each other, we do activities together all the time.

What have you found helps ease the anxiety for children in your care? What are your strategies for helping them cope with a tough situation?

We are definitely more trauma-informed than we were at the beginning. I teach some of it now.

When a kid comes to us, we really acclimate them to our home before we ever go out.

Food is a huge issue, even more so with these kids. We always have fruit out that they can eat whenever they want, even if I’m getting dinner ready. Corn flakes, to them that term means any type of cereal, we have it out all the time because they recognize that.

We’ll use a lot of Spanish worship music at night. Night is scary for them – we have a basement and some of them are staying in bedrooms in the basement. So we leave lights on, and have music playing until they get used to the house, the smells and sounds.

We also flip our TV into Spanish and then slowly start to flip back. Frozen is still such a big deal, they will watch and watch and watch. And they pick [English] up quickly like that.

Unaccompanied children started to become much more visible with that 2014 surge. How did that change things for you?

At first, it was no big deal to tell people about doing this. Now, we just don’t even bring it up.

First it was like, “Oh that’s neat!” Then it turned into getting nosy. And obviously in 2014, the climate really changed. Sometimes, during foster parent training, I won’t even mention that I do it. For the most part, friends have been OK with it.

Our biggest job is to keep the kids safe, period. People ask me politically about it, I could argue vehemently for both sides.

What are the sides, as you see it?

One side says, these poor kids, let everyone in. But they have to be screened and they have no solution. And the other side has no solution either, they just want it stopped.

Somewhere in the middle is the solution, but I don’t know what it is.

Do you keep in touch with any of the children who have come to you through UAC?

If they contact us, then we are allowed to. Once they leave our home, I can’t email or anything.

And some of them, we do develop relationships. But I can’t say or do anything after they leave until they initiate contact. They have to reach out to us.

But we have definitely heard back from kids during the years. We had one girl call us, and just said, “I wanted you to know I love you, and miss you, and I’m learning English and I’ll call you when I know more.”

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.