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Lutheran Services Carolinas serving children taken from parents at Mexican border

By Katie Scarvey

For the Salisbury Post

Lutheran Services Carolinas, the Salisbury-based nonprofit organization that runs Trinity Oaks, Trinity at Home and Trinity Living Center, made national news recently when one of its South Carolina programs took custody of five children who had been separated from their parents at the Mexican border.

The family separations began in April after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy of criminal prosecution for anyone entering the country without documentation, with severe restrictions placed on those seeking legal asylum.

Although widespread public outrage prompted an executive order that has halted the separations, more than 2,300 children had already been taken from their families, with some of thom sent to transitional foster care programs like Lutheran Services.

For about a year, Lutheran Services’ Columbia, South Carolina-based Transitional Foster Care for Unaccompanied Children program has been receiving foster placement requests from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Specialized foster programs like Lutheran Services’ were designed to be more compassionate alternatives to detention centers.

Until recently, the children served by LSC’s program have come to the United States alone or with siblings.

The 30 children Lutheran Services has served, which include the five children separated from their families at the border, are from Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and El Salvador, says program coordinator Becky Gibson.

Although the average stay of a child in the program has typically been about a month, Gibson expects the most recent arrivals to be in foster care for at least five weeks.

Reuniting children safely with family members, whether it be a family member in the U.S. or the family member who is detained, is the program’s main goal, officials say.

“We are waiting direction from the Office of Refugee Resettlement on how to proceed with the reunification of detained parents and children,” Gibson says. “We are hopeful for a safe and well-developed plan to be put in place.”

The most recent arrivals, who are between ages 7 and 11, have little understanding of what is happening to them or why they have been taken from their parents, Gibson says.

To ease the fears of both parents and children, Gibson’s top priority when children arrive is to help them contact their parents by phone. That can be difficult, given the chaos of the border situation, but all the children in LSC’s program have been able to contact a parent, as well as family in their home country or the United States.

The children in Lutheran Services’ transitional foster care program are not “in detention,” and their setting is not restrictive.

During the week, they attend school with bilingual tutors, go on field trips, and receive counseling. Evenings and weekends are spent with their foster family.

“We want to ensure these children are in safe, loving environments,” Gibson says. “Apart from the trauma they experienced at the border, they have also likely experienced trauma in their home countries.”

Gibson says it’s hard for some in the U.S. to understand why parents would risk so much to bring their children here.

“Many of these families are desperate,” Gibson says. “They are fleeing gang-related violence and feel they have no other choice if they want to keep their families safe. It’s hard for most people to imagine what these families have faced that would make them attempt such a difficult journey to the United States.”

Lutheran Services Carolinas is able to serve only eight children at present and is looking for additional foster parents in the Columbia area so more children can receive care. Foster parents are not required to speak Spanish.

“There is tremendous need for foster families around the country, and certainly here in the Carolinas,” said Ted Goins, president of LSC. “Finding families who will serve in this way is a top priority for us.”

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