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Women’s Refugee Commission Urges Biden Administration to Move Away from Congregate Care for Unaccompanied Children Seeking Safety in the U.S.

Washington, D.C. – The Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC) today released a new policy brief that calls on the Biden administration – specifically the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) – to move away from congregate care for unaccompanied minors and instead improve care for unaccompanied children by adopting four specific recommendations:

  1. Prioritize geolocation in initial placement decisions
  2. Build a pipeline of community-based care providers
  3. Rectify problems of language access for children in care
  4. Provide localized, wrap-around services for unaccompanied children released to a non-relative sponsor

ORR is the United States government agency that manages the Unaccompanied Children Program. It has relied heavily on congregate care – a catch-all term to describe facilities that house a large number of children – which research shows can be harmful to a child’s long-term mental health. As of 2019, more than 90 percent of migrant children have been housed in facilities with more than 50 beds, despite repeated directives from Congress to limit reliance on congregate care.

“It is critical that ORR move away from congregate care and toward a system of processing and care that is more appropriate to the needs and better respects the rights of protection-seeking children in the U.S.,” said Katharina Obser, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at WRC. “While children should have appropriate support once released, our research shows that children must – and can – be safely reunified with family members or sponsors as quickly as possible. The use of mass congregate facilities as a rule of practice is both unnecessary and harmful.”

The four recommendations from WRC are based on ongoing research with current and former staff at congregate care facilities, post-release service providers, attorneys, and child advocates across the U.S. A more detailed report based on the research is forthcoming later this year.

Interviewees agreed unanimously that geolocation – initial placements of children in locations near U.S.-based family – is a best practice and should be adopted as an ORR policy. Geolocation assists in sponsor verification and can speed the placement process for thoroughly vetted sponsors.

WRC’s research shows that while networks of community-based care exist in the domestic child welfare system, the unaccompanied children’s network lacks the same infrastructure. As a result, ORR relies on very large facilities from organizations that can manage the federal contracting and regulatory process without outside help, rather than housing children with local organizations and in the smaller scale facilities better suited for children’s needs.

Within ORR facilities, children’s rights to use their primary language and their access to interpreters are regularly sidestepped, according to WRC’s research. The primarily affected children are Indigenous children from Central America who are presumed to speak Spanish. Lack of language access can negatively affect everything from behavior in care to the speed of reunification to the quality of trafficking screenings.

Stakeholders interviewed for the study affirmed the importance of “post-release services,” the term for localized services for children following children’s reunification with their families. For example, WRC spoke to numerous individuals who shared stories of how children need accompaniment because of discrimination they commonly face, such as during attempts at public-school enrollment. These kinds of barriers and harm can be mitigated through improved post-release services, where best practices include in-person assessments from social workers having those workers identify, locate, and link families to the services they need.

“Unaccompanied children who arrive in the U.S. have already faced untold challenges and harm,” said Obser. “Adopting these recommendations would make a meaningful difference as they go on to navigate the immense barriers and complexities of the U.S. immigration system. We must do better to ensure that kids receive the support – and care – they need.”