Biden administration looks to state foster care and shelters to house growing number of migrant children at border

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
·7-min read

The Biden administration is seeking to enlist state-licensed shelter and foster care providers that typically serve local child welfare systems to help provide temporary housing for thousands of unaccompanied migrant children.

The initiative, which is already facing pushback in some Republican-led states, is the latest move in the administration’s ongoing struggle to secure enough space to safely accommodate the record number of unaccompanied migrant minors arriving at the southern border.

Young unaccompanied migrants, ages 3-9, watch TV inside a playpen at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley in Donna, Texas, March 30, 2021. The youngest of the unaccompanied minors are kept separate from the rest of the detainees. (Dario Lopez-Mills /POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Unaccompanied migrants, ages 3-9, watch TV inside a playpen at a Department of Homeland Security holding facility in Donna, Texas, on March 30. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, U.S. border authorities encountered a record 18,890 unaccompanied children along the southwest border, a 100 percent increase from February. According to the latest data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal agency responsible for the care of unaccompanied children in U.S. custody, there were 21,272 in its custody as of last Friday.

Recently, HHS has been transferring many of these children from the border to various military bases, convention centers and other large facilities that have been quickly converted into emergency sites capable of housing hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of kids at a time. While generally considered to be better than prolonged detention in overcrowded Border Patrol stations, these temporary facilities are less than ideal conditions for children, particularly those under 12 or with special needs.

“I think all of us would like to see that be as temporary as possible,” said Lisette Burton, chief policy and practice adviser at the Association of Children’s Residential Centers, referring to the administration’s use of convention centers and other facilities that were not designed to house children.

The association is a network made up of member organizations around the country that specialize in services for families and children, including foster care, case management, psychiatric residential treatment and school-based mental health services. While some network members are already federally contracted to provide housing and other services to unaccompanied migrant children, most work primarily within the domestic child welfare system.

But over the last month or so, Burton said, the association, along with a variety of other organizations and agencies at the national, state and local levels, has been working to help the Biden administration identify unused capacity in foster care programs and licensed residential facilities around the country that could potentially house unaccompanied children arriving at the border.

“It was on March 26 when we first put out a call to action to all of our member networks,” she said. “Since then, the response has been tremendous.”

Refugee families from Central America, many with small children, are detained by Border Patrol agents after crossing from Mexico into the United States, on April 14, 2021 in La Joya, Texas. ( Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Refugees from Central America on April 14 after crossing from Mexico into Texas. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

As of April 14, Burton said that, based on surveys submitted by provider organizations within the network, “we’re looking at potential capacity to serve approximately 3,000 children, and I’d say at least a third of that has been identified with potential foster family homes.” She predicted that as the effort moves forward into the implementation phase, more providers would likely step up and offer their services.

“While this is certainly in response to the urgent need, I think there is interest, opportunity and an eye toward building a stronger unaccompanied-children program for the long term,” Burton said.

She and others who spoke to Yahoo News about the effort to house unaccompanied children insisted that it wouldn’t take away the capacity of these organizations to provide their normal services.

“I can’t stress that enough,” Burton said. “I think we're all very aware and sensitive to wanting to make sure none of this work happens at the expense of any child or family currently or potentially receiving services through our existing child welfare systems.”

Nonetheless, opponents of the initiative in some Republican-led states have cited that particular concern — along with opposition to Biden’s immigration policies.

President Biden waves as he walks with First Lady Jill Biden after exiting Marine One on the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sunday, April 25, 2021. (Mike Theiler/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Biden and his wife, Jill, in Washington on Sunday. (Mike Theiler/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Though it’s not clear yet where, exactly, the federal government is seeking to relocate unaccompanied children from the border, a handful of Republican governors have already preemptively announced that they will not allow unaccompanied migrant children to be placed in state-run foster care or group homes.

During an interview with a local radio show earlier this month, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said the need for additional housing for unaccompanied migrant children is “the president’s problem.” A week later, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that his state would be “declining [the administration’s] request because we are reserving our resources for serving our kids.”

“I do not want our kids harmed as the result of President Biden's bad policies,” Ricketts said.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster went even further, issuing an executive order that bars his state's Department of Social Services from allowing the federal government to place unaccompanied migrant children in state-run foster care or group homes. According to a press release from his office, McMaster issued the order after preliminary inquiries from the federal government prompted the head of the state's Department of Social Services to outline several concerns about South Carolina's ability to accommodate unknown numbers of migrant children from the border “at a time when we are already under-resourced and attempting as a State to raise our system’s capacity to serve well the children already in our care.”

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has suggested migrant kids won’t be welcome in the Mount Rushmore State either, tweeting, “South Dakota won't be taking any illegal immigrants that the Biden Administration wants to relocate. My message to illegal immigrants... call me when you're an American.”

In an emailed statement to Yahoo News, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote that its Office of Refugee Resettlement “bears 100% of the cost of caring” for unaccompanied children in federal custody and was not using local child welfare resources.

A young unaccompanied minor walks over others as they lie inside a pod for females at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by the US Customs and Border Protection, (CBP), in Donna, Texas on March 30, 2021. (Dario Lopez-Mills/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
A girl walks over others as they lie inside a pod at the Donna, Texas, holding facility. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

“Pitting children against one another in a zero-sum game is simply playing politics,” said Krish Vignarajah, president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a nonprofit that provides housing and other services for unaccompanied migrant children in federal custody. “The truth is that some people are called and equipped to foster unaccompanied children. Others are called and equipped to foster children in the domestic system.”

In addition to shelters, residential treatment centers and other child care facilities, government-contracted providers already place a small portion of unaccompanied children in their care with state-licensed foster families.

According to HHS, as of April 16, approximately 6 percent of all unaccompanied children in its custody were in some kind of foster care placement, the most common of which is what HHS calls “transitional,” or short-term, foster care. These spots are typically reserved for children under 12, those who are pregnant or parenting, younger sibling groups and other particularly vulnerable children. They essentially serve as an alternative to staying in a shelter or other residential facility while case managers with the refugee office work to locate and vet an appropriate sponsor — a process that usually takes around 30 to 35 days.

Vignarajah said that in response to recent news coverage of the backup of migrant children at the border, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has been flooded with inquiries from potential foster families interested in finding out how they can help. The organization has gone from receiving dozens of requests per week to more than 3,000 last month.

“The outpouring has been inspiring,” she said.

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