Eye-Opening Discussion on Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

November 2, 2016

dsc_0999Last night, the Community Foundation of New Jersey was pleased to host an engaging roundtable discussion for fundholders with three experts working to improve the well-being of the more than 7,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who call the Garden State home.

Many of these children risked life and limb to travel to the United States and, while now free of the pandemic violence in Central America that they fled, face new or other challenges.

According to Dr. Douglas Bishop, the Assistant Medical Director at Zufall Health, every unaccompanied immigrant child treated at the health center has some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress.

Since most of the children are without green cards, they do not qualify for Medicaid.  This means that the cost of their treatment – for ailments ranging from bumps and bruises to more serious, even chronic diseases – are borne by the nonprofit health center and its funders.

By definition these unaccompanied minors are under 18 years of age, without a legal status, and coming to the United States alone.

According to Randi Mandelbaum, Director of the Child Advocacy Clinic at Rutgers Law School, in 2014, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (a program of the Administration for Children and Families, an office within the United States Department of Health and Human Services) placed approximately 2,680 of these minors with friends or family in New Jersey.

In 2015 that number was 1,462, and so far in 2016, the number tops 2,600.

Union, Bergen, and Morris counties are home to the highest number of these unaccompanied minors.

Legal Representation

A key part of the discussion last night was around the importance of legal representation for the unaccompanied minors.

Ariela Herzog, staff attorney with the Child Advocacy Clinic, explained that when these children – all under 18, some of them just 6 or 7 – go before a judge to plead their fate, they rarely have an attorney by their side, nor speak any English.

It is no wonder, then, that having an attorney by a child’s side is often the deciding factor in whether her or she may stay in the United States.

Approximately 73 percent of the children represented by an attorney are allowed to stay in the United States, compared to just 15 percent of those without an attorney.

In total, only 10 to 15 percent are represented by an attorney.

This statistic was a key motivator for the Community Foundation, which earlier this year granted $45,000 to pay for roughly half of the salary and benefits of a supporting attorney, hired through the Rutgers Child Advocacy Clinic, to coordinate work with and provide much-needed family law expertise to pro bono attorneys who represent these young people in court.

And the work could not come at a more important time.

“I feel like a missionary in my own country,” explained a local high school guidance counselor who attended the roundtable.

Working with Zufall Health and, when necessary, the Child Advocacy Clinic, several local schools are seeing an increase in the number of unaccompanied immigrant children in need of critical services.

From getting the students current on vaccinations to treating acute illnesses, Zufall is providing a necessary bridge for these young people to achieve some semblance of well-being and normalcy.

To put in perspective the kinds of dangers these children face on their lonely journeys to the United States, Bishop spoke about the prevalence of young women coming to the health center nearing the end of their three-month stint on Depo-Provera.

As the mother of one of these young women explained, it is routine to put a child on Depo-Provera before she travels to the United States so as to prevent pregnancy associated with rape.

“It was a unique opportunity to be at the Community Foundation for such a one-on-one dialogue with these practitioners, each of whom was working with an unaccompanied immigrant child moments before arriving at the office, “  said Carole Rogers. “It’s about as up close and personal as you can get to one of our country’s toughest, most complex issues.”