Some immigrant children have arrived to refugee resettlement care with their parents’ contact information hastily written on their clothes.
In one case, a child came holding his father’s belt, which had a name and phone number written inside it. In other cases, the parents have taught the children a rhyme to remember contact information.
Dona Abbott, Grand Rapids, Michigan, branch director of refugee services for Bethany Christian Services, described a resettlement process thrust into turmoil amid the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy toward undocumented immigrants.
In some instances, case workers are given no information about the identity of the children’s parents or family.
“The case manager tries to identify who the parents are,” Abbott said. “What we do is call the detention centers in the state where the child entered across the border and start asking if the parent is there.”
It can take anywhere from a week to two weeks to find the parents, she said.
Abbott spoke with CNN as the Trump administration continued to enforce the zero-tolerance policy, under which every person caught crossing the US border illegally, including a parent accompanying a child, is referred for prosecution. The policy has had the immediate effect of separating parents from their children, sparking outrage across America.
Bethany Christian Services has a contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to help transition children from government custody to homes. Bethany Christian Services has placed 99 children with foster families in Michigan and Maryland, Abbott said.
‘This policy is relatively new’
Abbott said the process with this new policy has not been seamless. She said some foster families report that the children start crying at dinner time and continue crying throughout the night.
“They just want someone to explain what’s happening and when they’ll get back together with their mom or their dad. They’re crying, they have nightmares, all the things you would expect,” Abbott said.
Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary for children and families at the Health and Human Services’ Administration, said he did not know how many of the separated children have been placed or reunited with parents.
“This policy is relatively new, we’re still working through the experience of reunifying parents with their kids after adjudication,” he said. “When we’re aware of the presence of a parent in the country, our goal then is to reunite the child with the parent.”
Before this Trump administration policy, a “very small number” of children were separated from their parents, Abbott said.
“This separation is avoidable,” she said. “We don’t have to separate children to solve this problem.”
The children placed with foster families are as young as 8 months old and up to 17 years old, with the average age being 7.
“Children should always be protected and we are not really doing a good job of that right now,” Abbott said.
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.