Citing Trump’s Family Separation Policy, California Lawmakers Call for State Oversight of Unaccompanied Minors

a child looks out a window
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A group of California legislators want the state to exercise more oversight over the federal program that handles unaccompanied minors from other countries, including the ones who were separated from their families under Trump’s controversial 2018 policy.

Assembly Bill 163 would require the group homes and foster family agencies (FFA)that contract with federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to report to the state the number of unaccompanied immigrant youth in their care. Those agencies would also have to report on the length of placements, and arrange for each youth to meet with a legal aid group.

The bill would also require a county child welfare representative to meet with each youth to assess their well-being and offer mental health services.

Central American minors who arrive at the southern border unaccompanied and in search of asylum are placed in the custody of ORR, which operates the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. ORR contracts with foster family agencies and group homes throughout the country to house these young people while a willing sponsor – usually a relative – is found to care for them until the date of their asylum hearing.

A wrench was thrown into that process when President Trump OK’d a plan to deter families from traveling to the border by taking their children and putting them in the UAC program.

“It all started when we were reading about the kids who were separated from their parents and trying to figure out where we could have a say in this process to make things better for these families,” said Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D), who introduced the bill along with Assemblymember Blanca Rubio (D).

Because FFAs and group homes contract with the federal government to care for unaccompanied immigrant youth, state officials have next to no information about the number being housed in the state or the services they’re being offered.

“I was looking into how many kids are here, and I couldn’t get that information from ORR,” Garcia said.

In California, ORR-contracted group homes and FFAs are licensed and regulated by the state Department of Social Services (CDSS) because they also serve youth in California’s foster system. Garcia hopes this could be a vehicle for greater state oversight of the ORR program. Because of the state licensure process, CDSS already has the right to conduct unannounced inspections of ORR-contracted facilities, of which there are fewer than 10 statewide, according to ORR.

“It happens all the time actually,” said Martha Jasso, the public information officer with ORR-contracted Crittenton Services for Children and Families in Orange County. “It happened during last year’s humanitarian crisis at the border.”

AB 163 would require quarterly inspections of each facility housing ORR youth.

Currently, there is no policy for ORR-contracted group homes and FFAs to provide information about youth in ORR custody to any California state departments. And with strict privacy rules and medical confidentiality regulations, these agencies are prohibited from sharing much information, including details about youth’s health or mental well-being.

Jasso said the ORR contracts are “pretty clear” about what services are being provided, and added that the facilities serving ORR youth in California must maintain the state’s child welfare mandates and licensing standards, leading to a higher level of care then some of the shelters that have made the news for lax safety standards and insufficient access to mental health services.

Garcia has also heard that these young people have it better in California, but it doesn’t satisfy her.

“Just because we might be better than other states doesn’t mean we’re doing all we can for these kids,” she said. “Clearly we’ve seen the federal government doesn’t care about these kids.”

A similar showdown has been playing out in Texas after an investigation from Reveal uncovered hundreds of health and safety violations at the 32 state-licensed facilities there that house unaccompanied immigrant youth.

Shortly after Reveal broke the story, Texas state Rep. Mary González (D) and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus developed a list of recommendations for improved care of these children, including unannounced site visits and free legal aid. Several of those recommendations have become bills in the new legislative session, including House Bill 67, which calls for bolstering the state’s data collection protocol for this population.

If passed, the California law would add to the workload of county welfare agencies, as they would be required to meet with each unaccompanied youth and assess them for mental health service needs.

But Cathy Senderling, deputy executive director of the County Welfare Director Association (CWDA), says they’re up for the task.

“The Trump administration’s policies regarding unaccompanied undocumented minors have been abhorrent,” Senderling said in a statement emailed to The Chronicle of Social Change. “California must do everything within its state power to protect these children, and CWDA is determined to support that effort.”

She said CWDA has reached out to the bill’s authors and is meeting with county child welfare agencies to ensure buy-in.

In addition to creating state oversight over the care of these youth, AB 163 seeks to bolster their access to legal aid. While California established a $3 million fund in 2014 to provide legal aid to unaccompanied immigrant youth in the state, a flyer with a phone number is the extent of the guidance youth in ORR custody get toward accessing it, according to Garcia.

“Whether a kid is 2 or 16, they’re getting that flyer and that’s the extent of it,” she said. “And I said no, that’s not good enough.”

Under AB 163, ORR-contracted group homes and FFAs would become responsible for arranging meetings with a legal aid group for each ORR youth in their care. In addition to the $3 million set aside in 2014, One California, a state-funded program, provides money for immigrant legal aid as well. The 2017-18 state budget allocated $45 million in ongoing funding through the 2019-20 fiscal year.

ORR declined to comment about the proposed legislation.

AB 163 has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Human Services and is awaiting a hearing there, though that calendar is not yet set.

John Kelly contributed to this report.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 58 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change