Immigrant children who have fled violence in Central America deserve to receive compassionate treatment while they await their day in court. In Hillsborough County, the 13th Judicial Circuit Community Alliance, a group of child welfare organizations, recently launched an initiative to connect unaccompanied immigrant children and their caregivers with a variety of support services that could ease their transition into American life. This proactive approach sets aside politics and puts children first. Other communities should replicate the effort.
The community alliance formed an Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Committee in July. The group aims to provide caregivers with information ranging from a list of free health clinics to phone numbers for key personnel in the public school system. The committee, which includes members from the Children's Board and Eckerd Community Alternatives, hopes that providing caregivers with kinship support will keep families together and lessen the potential for the children to run away, become homeless or need other services such as foster care and residential mental health programs.
More than 34,400 unaccompanied immigrant children have been placed with families in the United States between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, according to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The children have settled with families in 12 Florida counties, including Hillsborough, which has 161 children. Most of the children live with relatives or sponsor families. As many as 80 percent of the girls have been sexually assaulted, and others are traumatized by the conditions they fled in their home countries and by the treacherous journey to the United States, child welfare workers say. "We're not taking sides," said committee member Robin L. Rosenberg, the deputy director of Florida's Children First. "We are about children. We want to make sure that they have what is already available to take care of them."
Reaching caregivers and the resettled children is a challenge because their addresses are not made public. The committee posted its initial offerings for caregivers at http://centerforchildwelfare.fmhi.usf.edu/circuit/Circuit13UICC.shtml. It also hopes to perform outreach in communities where they suspect some of the children live and enlist school social workers to pass along information. The group also would like to secure funding to pay for a navigator that could serve as a contact person for families in need.
This is a welcome gesture to help children without taking sides in the nation's polarizing immigration debate. The program's only agenda is to connect needy families with existing services and prevent immigrant children from entering the child welfare system. It is compassionate, cost-effective and a worthy effort that the entire community should support.