The Growing Numbers of Immigrant Children in Federal Custody Need Recreational, Educational, and Legal Services to Protect Their Well-Being

As growing numbers of children and youth from Central America are being forced to flee their homes, alone, to seek safety and opportunity in the United States, the Trump administration announced last week that it is eliminating programming that is necessary to protect and promote the well-being of all children, and is especially important for children who have experienced trauma. Specifically, the administration stated that it is halting funding for educational services, legal services, and recreation for unaccompanied children living in migrant shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). This move is short-sighted and poses a direct threat to the more than 13,200 children who are now in our government’s care.

When children cross the border without a parent or legal guardian, they are in need of protection. They are sent to shelters administered by ORR to await connection to a sponsor—usually a relative or family friend. Since the beginning of this fiscal year, more than 40,800 unaccompanied children have been placed in ORR custody. On average children are in these shelters for several weeks, but some languish in them for months. These shelters are legally obligated to provide educational and recreational activities as well as information about available legal services under the terms of the Flores settlement agreement, a 1997 decree that requires federal authorities treat immigrant children in government custody “with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors” and recognizes the importance of education, recreational, legal and other services for their health and well-being.

For decades, experts in child welfare and child well-being have recognized how critical these services are for all children and youth. Research on youth development finds that educational and recreational programming is foundational to protecting and promoting their well-being. The U.S. Children’s Bureau has stated that ensuring the physical safety of children and youth in foster care without attending to their social, emotional, physical, and educational well-being is insufficient. The value of multi-dimensional services that support children’s well-being is increasingly codified in law.

There is widespread agreement in the medical community that these services are especially important for immigrant children who recently crossed the border, and may have experienced trauma. In a 2017 Policy Statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics called for the expansion of educational, recreational, and legal services for immigrant children in government custody, specifically stating that “recreational and social enrichment activities, such as opportunities for physical activity and creative expression, may alleviate stress and foster resiliency and should be part of any program for detained children.” As psychiatrist Amy Cohen told the New York Times when news broke about the government’s plans to eliminate this programming “To those of us whose job it is to promote the health and safety of children, this is a shocking directive. It violates every tenet of basic child welfare practice and will further harm the medical and psychological health of children fleeing extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in their home countries.”

Even without the newly proposed restrictions, conditions in ORR shelters fall short of the government’s legal obligations and our conversations with lawyers representing these children have revealed that inadequate recreational and educational programming is common and children have very limited access to legal services. Eliminating these services entirely will leave the growing number of children in the ORR shelters with no activities to help them channel and manage stress at the very moment in their lives when they need it most: when they are separated from their families, and uncertain about their future.

Children who have risked their lives to seek safety and opportunity in the United States are our children, and they deserve our every effort to mitigate the trauma they have experienced, and to promote their physical and mental health and well-being while they are in our care. This administration’s decision to take away services from some of the most vulnerable children in the United States is part of a systematic effort to undermine the well-being of immigrant children and families. We have a legal and moral obligation to ensure that these children, like all of our children, have access to the supports and services they need to heal and grow. Rather than eliminate this programming, we should expand it.

Elisa Minoff is a Senior Policy Analyst at CSSP.