Unaccompanied children represent some of the most vulnerable. Often fleeing systemic violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America, children risk their lives to reach safety and protection in the United States. Imagine how dire conditions must be to send your child on the perilous journey north. It is truly one of the most difficult decisions parents must make to protect their children. As one mother reportedly stated: “I’d rather see my child die on the way to the United States than on my own doorstep.”
Having fled life-threatening conditions, many of these children qualify for legal relief. Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, unaccompanied children are transferred to the Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Congress shifted this responsibility to ORR, recognizing that children should be cared for by an agency that advocates for the child’s best interests. ORR’s responsibility is to screen children for protection and provide care until a child can be reunified with a family member or family friend.
Here is Alicia’s (name and identifying information have been removed to protect the child’s confidentiality) experience, an example of how LIRS Safe Release caseworkers help minors at risk of trafficking:
A 17-year-old girl from El Salvador, Alicia was found wandering on a beach by a good Samaritan. She was shaken and had with her all of her ORR paperwork, including a cover letter from our Safe Release caseworker. Alicia told the good Samaritan that she ran away from her sibling, whom she had been released to a few days earlier. The good Samaritan called the LIRS Safe Release caseworker’s number and arranged to bring Alicia to them to discuss the situation and see what could be done.
Alicia said that her sibling told her that she would have to work as a prostitute in order to pay back her sibling for the journey to the United States. Because of this she decided to run away. Alicia was distraught because her other sibling had encouraged Alicia to prostitute herself to local gang members in exchange for protection. The LIRS case worker was able to connect Alicia to a local shelter for trafficking victims, and she was given shelter and a case manager to work on her case for relief based upon her trafficking report.
LIRS believes children are best cared for by their families. Yet, we must ensure that reunification is consistent with our country’s child welfare standards. To ensure the safety and well-being of children, family members or other sponsors must be thoroughly screened. Post-release services should be provided, including social services, child advocates, and legal counsel.
A recent hearing before a Senate Subcommittee on Investigations revealed several lapses in the safe release process. These failures resulted in traffickers exploiting unaccompanied children. The stories are heart-wrenching and show the extreme vulnerability of unaccompanied children. LIRS’s report At the Crossroads for Unaccompanied Migrant Children identified the gaps in protection and due process. Additionally, the report highlighted ways ORR can ensure children’s safety in reunification and their well-being while they’re with their families.
The Senate Subcommittee asked our Director for Children’s Services, Kimberly Haynes, to provide testimony and recommendations. She urged ORR to uphold the best interests of these vulnerable children, including:
- Prioritizing child protection over timelines based on financial concerns
- Conducting thorough background checks that include
- FBI fingerprints
- Child Abuse and Neglect (CA/N) checks
- Ensuring that all children have access to home studies and post-release case management services
Unaccompanied children are already exposed to horrifying danger. We cannot continue the cycle of harm. We must ensure that while these children are in the United States they are well cared for. We see the light of God in the eyes of all children and, as people of faith, we provide safe haven for those in need.
For more information on safe release practices that protect kids’ well-being, read our Unaccompanied Children FAQ.