A Topeka shelter is housing children separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border.
The Villages, Inc. has a 50-year history of taking in troubled youth grappling with abuse, drug problems, or involvement in criminal activity, at its seven homes in Lawrence and Topeka.
It’s now taking in children in the custody of the U.S. government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, The Villages president Joseph Wittrock confirmed in a statement.
The Villages has since last year been receiving children — many of them teens — who had crossed the border without their parents or other adult relatives. But with the Trump administration’s implementation of a zero-tolerance immigration policy this April, children of all ages separated from their parents have been sent to Topeka. An editorial in The Kansas City Star Wednesday revealed that The Villages began receiving younger migrant children, possibly as young as six years old, in recent weeks.
The shelter has no specific timeline for reuniting children with their families.
“While in our care, The Villages works diligently to reunite Unaccompanied Children with family members or other qualified sponsors and we have had great success to date,” Wittrock wrote. “The Villages is here to help the Unaccompanied Children, to support the Unaccompanied Children, to make their experience with us a bright spot in an otherwise dark path that preceded their need for our help.”
The Villages started receiving funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Unaccompanied Alien Children program in 2017. The nonprofit received more than $2.5 million from the federal refugee office in 2017, and about $3.2 million so far this year.
The Villages Executive Director Sylvia Crawford said the organization is not able to answer media questions about its federal grant program working with migrant kids as part of its agreement with the agency. She referred all other questions to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which did not respond to multiple calls and emails.
Nearly 2,000 children were separated from their adult guardians at the southern border between April 19 and the end of May. Including those children and kids who crossed the border without their parents, the government says more than 10,000 children are staying in a network of 100 shelters overseen by the federal refugee office in Kansas and 13 other states.
Separating kids from their parents can be traumatic and lead to long-term negative effects on their physical and emotional well-being, said Michelle Johnson-Motoyama, a professor of social work at the University of Kansas. Kids crossing the southern border are also likely to have faced dangerous conditions on their way to the U.S., meaning they could be absorbing trauma on top of trauma.
“Likely what they’re experiencing is a flood of stress hormones,” she said. “The more quickly these children can be reunified with parents, the better.”
The Villages is hiring for four positions working with migrant kids, with a preference for bilingual English-Spanish speakers. One job, for a clinician to provide mental health services to unaccompanied children, was advertised on the organization’s Facebook page in early April.
"We must continually have a workforce that meets the demands of the children that we are serving,” Wittrock wrote. “We are continually adapting to serve those needs, including hiring qualified professionals such as teachers and mental health clinicians who speak the language of the children who need our care."
The children separated from their parents at the border are in federal custody, not that of the Kansas Department for Children and Families. DCF spokeswoman Taylor Forrest said if the children are later placed with families in Kansas, they would be direct placements through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, remaining under that agency’s charge.
Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.
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