Providing a Home: Foster Care for Unaccompanied Refugee Children

What does the word “home” mean to you? For some it conjures up wonderful memories and a restful respite from the buzz of the world. For others, home may not have a positive connotation- perhaps it wasn’t or isn’t a restful and loving space.

The refugee crisis in Syria has put on public display what a lack of “home” looks like.

We remember the image of five year old  Omran Daqneesh sitting dazed in the back of an ambulance in the middle of a war zone in Aleppo. We also remember the striking image of a lifeless child face down on a Turkish beach. For the children of the Syrian refugee crisis, and for children around the world in war-torn regions, any sense of home that they had has been dashed. Instead death is common, as is separation from family, and fear is a constant companion.

The refugee crisis has captured the attention of the United States and other countries around the world. There have been robust debates about how to best respond to the refugee crisis here at home. While many will disagree about the best way for our government to respond, there is one program that has gained little attention in the news but is making a great impact.

In 1980, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a program of the Administration for Children and Families within the United States Department of Health and Human Services, was created. This led to the creation of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program (URM) which works with a very specific population: refugee children and teens who do not have a parent or relative able to care for them.  The Office of Refugee Resettlement website explains,

For refugee minors, the State Department identifies children overseas who are eligible for resettlement in the U.S., but do not have a parent or a relative available and committed to providing for their long-term care. Upon arrival in the U.S., these refugee children are placed into the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program and receive refugee foster care services and benefits.

The program exists with the mission to provide assistance to eligible unaccompanied minors through multiple levels of support including financial support, holistic mental health care, traditional education as well as life skills and career education, cultural and religious preservation, and case management support.

Though there is much press coverage on the refugee crisis in the Middle East, the URM program exists to serve children all around the world. Children who have been a part of the URM program in the United States are primarily children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala

We know that every child, regardless of nationality, is made in the image of God

So what does it look like for an American family to foster an unaccompanied refugee minor? Just as in domestic foster care, there are various reasons for why children end up in the foster care system, how long they stay, and what happens after they are reunified or age out of the URM foster care program.

According to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, there are seven categories of unaccompanied youth who are eligible: refugee minors, asylum minors, Cuban/Haitian entrants, human trafficking survivors, inaccurate age cases, special immigrant juvenile cases, and family breakdown cases. Different from domestic foster care programs, youth in the URM program age out at age 20 or 23.

Children who are in the URM foster care program get connected to it in a variety of ways. A child may already be in the United States; in some cases they were transported here by traffickers, crossed the border on their own, or entered with their family attempting to seek refuge but lost the protection and care of an adult by death or other means. This child can then be identified by the United States as a trafficking victim or one of the other six categories and placed into the URM foster care program. Another way the child can be connected to the program is if a child is identified overseas by the State Department in a refugee camp or as fitting the profile for a URM. The employee can then contact the Office of Refugee Resettlement in hopes of the child being classified as a URM and brought to the United States for a safer childhood.

Once a child is connected with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, they go through a significant vetting process, as anyone wanting to enter the United States as a refugee does. Children officially identified as an URM are then connected to two main agencies: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or affiliates of these agencies, to be placed with a family, in a group home, or for older URMs, in individual assisted living.

What does the foster home placement process look like for families who wish to open their homes and become licensed URM foster families? The process is very similar to the standard foster care licensing process, including the same licensing class, home studies, references, paper work and waiting. However, with potential URM foster families, there is an added level of education and licensing that occurs. These families are placed with a licensing worker who has experience in this particular field, and works to educate the family on the additional factors for these children such as school, language, doctors, and the legal factors.

These families invest their time and their finances to create for a space for a child to experience home. They download translation apps, find intercultural local schools, delay vacations, learn other cultures, and decide how they will communicate what normal life is like in the United States.

There will continue to be disagreements about how the U.S. can or should respond to the refugee crisis. However, as Christians we can affirm the work of resettlement agencies and families who are welcoming children with no parents or families into their homes. We know that every child, regardless of nationality, is made in the image of God, and our faith compels us to care for the vulnerable. We can affirm the role of government in making space for providers like Lutheran Social Services and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide services and homes for these children. We should work to support and come alongside families in our midst who are fostering a refugee youth.

May the Church continue to be bold and take steps to move ever closer to the front lines of injustice and may we continue to be faithful stewards of the gift of home to bless others as we wait with great anticipation for our heavenly home. May we be able to say we used our stories and experiences of home to create one for others who do not have it.

-Kelsie Doan recently completed an internship at International Justice Mission in Washington, D.C., and is currently pursuing a MA in Intercultural Studies and Children at Risk at Fuller Theological Seminary in Arizona