Five immigrant children separated from families at the border placed in S.C. foster care

FILE - In this June 1, 2018, file photo, children hold signs during a demonstration in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Miramar, Fla. The Trump administration's move to separate immigrant parents from their children on the U.S.-Mexico border has turned into a full-blown crisis in recent weeks, drawing denunciation from the United Nations, Roman Catholic bishops and countless humanitarian groups. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

When the children arrive, they are afraid and suspicious.

They don’t trust the members of the staff.

Forcibly separated from their parents and families at the Mexico/Texas border, five immigrant children ages 7-11 have been sent to South Carolina to be placed in foster care in the Columbia area.

They arrive by plane, up to 36 hours after being accepted into the program.

“They don’t understand what’s happening, or why they have been separated from their parents,” said Rebecca Gibson, program coordinator for Transitional Foster Care with Lutheran Services Carolinas. “The children don’t know if they will be safe. They don’t know where their parents are and no one has given them any information."

Lutheran Services Carolinas (LSC) is a religious non-profit that coordinates foster care in South Carolina for immigrant children.

Immigrant children forcefully separated from their families at the border have been in the national spotlight for the past several weeks.

The Trump administration announced that the policy was a way to deter people from illegally crossing into the United States, and more than 2,000 minors have been separated from their families. Many are housed in temporary shelters, while others are sent to foster care.

Five of those children are in foster care in and around Columbia through the national Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said Gibson.

Some have been in South Carolina for a month; others arrived one week ago.

Gibson said one of the first goals is to connect these children with their parents through phone calls.

“We don’t know the circumstances of how the separation happened, or if the children were able to say goodbye,” she said. “Just knowing their parent is safe is a huge factor for them. Getting them in touch with their parents is one of the most important things we have to help them begin to adjust.”

Gibson said LSC is given the parent’s alien number to make it easier to locate them in one of the detention centers.

Unfortunately, even with a dedicated case manager tracking a parent down, it’s not always possible to make contact.

“A lot of the parents are being moved from detention centers,” Gibson said. “Today, for example, we had a phone call scheduled with a parent but found out at the last minute (the parent) was moved, and that call was not able to happen.”

One child in foster care has still not been able to get in touch with a parent since arriving in South Carolina, Gibson said.

She said the organization receives foster placement requests for these children from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

LSC is equipped to handle this population; the organization has been taking in unaccompanied minors since September 2017, well before children being separated from their families was in the national spotlight.

LSC had already served 25 children before the five recently separated from their families were sent, Gibson said.

The end goal for all of the children is to find a sponsor in the United States—a relative who can take custody of the child.

Because of these children being separated and a backlog of court cases among their parents in jail, the organization is preparing for a minimum of five weeks for these children in foster care, and that's for the least complicated of cases, Gibson said.

“If a child’s parent is in detention, and we have no viable sponsor in the U.S., it’s a wait-and-see situation,” Gibson said.

While these children are in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, it is a minimally restrictive foster care environment. The children attend school with bilingual tutors Monday through Friday. They receive group and individual therapy.

The children go on field trips, visit water parks and museums.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a “least-restrictive setting” is for children who are not a danger to themselves, the community or a flight risk.

“The kids are not in ‘detention,’” Gibson describes. “We try to make them as comfortable as possible and make sure they are in a family where they are loved.”

She said the children are integrated into the family life—they go to family events, attend church, go fishing and swimming.

All the while, a staff member is working behind the scenes to find sponsors, relatives, or anyone who can take full custody of the children.

“If we find a family member, like an aunt or an uncle or a cousin, our case manager does an investigation and background check to verify relationships to make sure there are no concerns with the child being released to them," Gibson said. “Our number one goal is to reunite child with family and make sure they are safe."

One issue is that the parent of the child must approve turning over custody, which isn’t always easy hundreds of miles away in a detention center.

Only one of the five children who came to South Carolina after being separated at the border has been released to a sponsor in the U.S., Gibson said.

Gibson said to understand the plight of these parents and children, it’s important to understand why they came to the United States.

“It’s very hard for people to understand why these parents are bringing their children here. It’s because they feel they have no other choice for survival," Gibson said. "These kids have dealt with things we can’t even imagine.”

A lot of these families are coming from situations where the government in their home countries are unwilling or unable to keep them safe from gang-related violence, Gibson said.

“It’s important to humanize this. They have our same hopes and desires and they want to be safe. They don’t want to worry about stepping out their front door and be killed or kidnapped.”

Gibson said LSC has taken in unaccompanied minors in all situations.

“We have had children as young as 10 years old who have made the journey by themselves, coming across with a (smuggler), usually someone paid to bring people across the border,” Gibson said.

The national Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services organization says it has placed 148 children separated from their families at the border into foster care across the country. The Lutheran Services Carolinas has the funds to support eight children, Gibson said.

“Our greatest need is for additional foster parents willing to take these children,” Gibson said. Foster homes must be licensed and certified by the state of South Carolina.

Monetary donations are also needed as well as donations of clothing and bilingual books.

Gibson said the organization is also accepting donations of suitcases – in the hopes that one day, these children will be able to pack up their things and be reunited with their family.

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