WASHINGTON — Hundreds of children under 13, from toddlers to tweens, taken from their parents by the federal government since May are flooding government shelters and foster homes — overwhelming a system that was designed for older teens and not for the special challenges of small children in a crisis.
This new population of younger children, traumatized by an abrupt separation from their mothers or fathers, has far greater emotional and physical needs than the older children who came before them and will potentially suffer longer lasting psychological damage, say specialists.
“The separation inflicts trauma upon these kids and disrupts the developing brain architecture,” said Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “They need their parents.”
On Wednesday, President Trump, facing a political firestorm over images and recordings of crying children, retreated from his administration’s decision to separate parents from their minor children at the border as part of a “zero tolerance” prosecution initiative announced in April. Instead, under an order Trump signed, the authorities will keep parents and children together in immigration detention.
But that will prove to be little comfort to at least 2,300 children, including babies, who have already been taken from their migrant parents and other adults at the border since May.
Trump’s order does not explicitly address those children, many of whom were distributed to a series of federal shelters and foster care homes around the country. At least three shelters on the Southwest border are housing toddlers and even babies, lawmakers told the Associated Press.
The government is also seeking to open a shelter for up to 240 children under the age of 12 in a warehouse in Houston .
The influx is changing the mission of these federal shelters and foster care sites, which are run under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“It’s a sea change from what we had seen before, and it’s directly attributable to family separation,” said Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which contracts with HHS to provide foster care for unaccompanied minors.
Typically, case managers worked with teens to try to find a relative to place the child with as quickly as possible. That relative would then be responsible for taking the teen to his or her immigration court dates.
Now, case managers and mental health professionals find themselves telling traumatized toddlers again and again that they’re safe and that they will try their hardest to locate their parents for them, social service organizations and advocates said. But finding their parents in the burgeoning immigrant detention system, which has poor tracking systems and weak plans for reunification, is difficult. And finding relatives outside detention can be a challenge, since many of the youngest children are not even verbal.
“Staff are really having to shift from doing their primary work in case management or clinical support of the child to just addressing the immediate needs of the trauma of the separation, particularly with the really young kids who are just truly devastated,” said Kathryn Kuennen, the associate director of Children’s Services at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group runs a foster care program for 12 migrant children. Some of them have been separated from their parents.
The influx has meant some very young kids are not put in a home with a family at all, as has generally been the federal government’s goal, but instead stay for weeks and even months in a shelter like the older kids do.
“This is a brand new model that we haven’t seen before,” said Jennifer Podkul, the director of policy at the legal nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense. “An overnight structure where they’re going to be keeping babies. I can’t imagine how you’ll do that in such a big facility. Beds or cribs? Are you going to need baby gates? How do you staff a facility like that?”
Kraft, who is a primary care pediatrician, visited a shelter designed for young children — what HHS refers to as “tender age” — in Texas in April. She was struck in particular by a room full of toddlers, where about 15 children under 3 were cared for by staffers. There were cribs and toys and books in the “homey” looking place, but the children didn’t seem happy.
“Typically when you see a bunch of toddlers together they’re running around and playing out loud, but these kids were really quiet,” Kraft said. “Except for one little girl who was in the center of the room and sobbing and couldn’t be comforted. She had a staff person next to her who was very distraught, giving her toys.”
Kraft said she was told by a shelter worker they were allowed to change diapers but not to comfort the kids with hugs. HHS denies that is a government guideline, with a spokesman saying workers are allowed to pick up small children “within proper boundaries.”
Cindy Casares, a spokeswoman for Southwest Key, a large nonprofit group that has government contracts to operate the younger child shelters, said, “Hugging has always been allowed at our shelters.”
The federal government has so far refused to release key information about the children who have been separated from their parents, including their average age, how many have been reunited with their families, and how many have been released from HHS custody. An HHS spokesman told Kaiser Health News that about 20 percent of the total unaccompanied population, which includes thousands of children who traveled to the border alone, are 12 years old or younger.
Some of the toddlers may also end up facing immigration judges for their asylum or other immigration claims, without relatives to help them navigate the system. “What is the appropriate etiquette for representing a baby in court?” Podkul asked. “Do I put a car seat on the attorney’s table? Do I hold him?”
Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights is launching an investigation into the trend of younger unaccompanied migrants after the federal government sent two baby boys — one 8 months old and the other 11 months old — into a foster care program run by Bethany Christian Services in the state this week. Bethany has taken in dozens of young children separated from their parents in recent months, with the average age in their program plummeting to 8 years old, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“We have received reports and are very concerned that the children arriving here are much younger than those who have been transported here in the past,” Agustin V. Arbulu, executive director of Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights, said in a statement. “Some of the children are infants as young as 3 months of age and are completely unable to advocate for themselves.”Liz Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin