This past Christmas, approximately 9,800 children in the U.S. spent the holiday in large-scale institutions holding more than 100 kids each. These children came from countries including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — nations with the highest child murder rates in the world — seeking refuge and safety in the United States.
In 2018, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the United States’ southern border and were placed in various care settings around the country. The largest was Tornillo, a city of tents in the Texas desert holding more than 2,300 children. According to the New York Times, the cost to house kids in Tornillo soared to about $750 per child, per day, yet the children only had limited access to basic services.
This method of housing children at the border is surprising when you consider that the United States rejected large-scale, institutional care 110 years ago. It harms children, and we shouldn’t accept it today for children who are seeking refuge within our borders.
On January 25, 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children. Leading child welfare advocates attended the conference seeking to raise public awareness about issues impacting children at that time, particularly the long-term effect of institutional care. They debated questions like:
- Should the government make more determined efforts to keep children with their families?
- What about children whose parents couldn’t care for them — should they be raised in an orphanage, with extended family in kinship care, or perhaps a foster family?
Conference attendees approved a suite of resolutions, ultimately determining, “Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization … Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons.” Attendees also decided that children who could not be with their families “should be cared for in [other] families.” This conference sparked a national movement to keep families together, bring families together, and keep children out of orphanages.
A century of research following that gathering has overwhelmingly shown that institutionalization negatively impacts children’s cognitive, physical and social development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children.”
Institutional care has greatly waned in the United States, and recently passed legislation – The Family First Prevention Services Act – rewards states that invest in finding families for children rather than placing children in settings that preclude them from being part of the community.
While we can celebrate progress toward family-based care, we have a long way to go — including how we care for children in the U.S. who have fled gang violence, sex trafficking, starvation and poverty.
We welcomed the recent news that children are no longer being placed in the Tornillo shelter. However, the U.S. government is still placing unaccompanied children in large institutions, including one facility with the capacity to hold up to 2,350 minors. The size and location of these facilities limit their ability to meet the unique needs of children who have experienced significant trauma.
The reality of large-scale institutionalization of unaccompanied children is even more heartbreaking because alternatives exist. We know that family and community-based care is better for children and that it works both in the United States and internationally including Ethiopia, Haiti and Ghana.
Organizations like Bethany Christian Services provide Transitional Foster Care for children who are seeking refuge in the United States without their families. The goals of this program are two-fold. First, we ensure that children who have fled for their lives are cared for and kept safe in temporary foster families.
Then, as soon as children enter our care, we immediately begin the process of locating their families. Our mission always has been — and always will be — to quickly and safely reunify children with their families. In fact, Bethany has helped reunify more than 5,000 unaccompanied children with their families in the last five years.
For older children, especially those who would prefer a more independent living arrangement, community-based care models like small group homes are better alternatives to large-scale institutions. In small group homes, older children live in shared housing with other youth their age and have freedoms that aren’t available in large-scale institutions like community outings, group activities, individualized treatment plans, individual and group counseling, and intensive case management. Evidence-based, trauma-informed models of care can help ensure that youth in smaller shelters receive the best care possible.
We understand the need is great, so we are committed to recruiting, licensing and training even more foster families for unaccompanied children. Tent cities and large institutions can be — and should be — relics of the past.
Children seeking asylum in the United States don’t belong in large institutions. It’s time for our policy and services to reflect what we’ve known for 110 years — children belong in families.
Dona Abbott is the vice president of refugee and immigrant services and Kristi Gleason is the vice president of global services at Bethany Christian Services.