Children who are separated from their parents are treated as unaccompanied migrants, and so their immigration cases are separate from their parents and they are not kept in detention with their families. Unaccompanied children have more protections than adults and must be kept in the "least restrictive setting available," following a 1997 legal settlement under President Bill Clinton. That could mean being released to family members or a program such as the one led by Bethany Christian Services.
Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany, said the organization's goal is to "try to find families for vulnerable kids."
He and Dona Abbott, branch director of refugee services for Bethany, stressed that the group believes children should not be separated from their parents.
“Families are the best place to meet a child’s individual needs, and of course it should be their own family,” Abbott said.
The group picks up unaccompanied children at the airport and works with a therapist and case manager to determine what each child needs and where their parents are.
“Sometimes we get information about where a parent is when they’re separated and many times we don’t,” Abbott said. “We just know where they cross the border, and then we just start calling detention centers.”
The group also gives children an educational assessment and trains teachers and parents on how to handle children who have experienced trauma.
About half of the 100 migrant children Bethany is currently working with have been separated from their parents, and that number is growing. In May, 26 of the 29 children referred to Bethany had been separated. The average age of children in their care has fallen to 6 to 8, down from 12 to 14, Palusky said.
“In fact, we have an 8-month-old that we’re helping take care of,” he said. “We’re seeing babies, younger kids, where before it was more youth and teenagers.”
Agustin Arbulu, executive director of Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said in a statement Wednesday that agencies working with separated children have reported receiving infants.
"Some of the children are infants as young as 3 months of age and are completely unable to advocate for themselves," he said.
The trauma these children face is often compounded by the violence they've already witnessed in their home countries.