Mike, Dennis and Leah share laugh over nonsensical spanish lessons.
As federal, state and local authorities deal with the influx of nearly 60,000 Central American children — and counting — who have crossed the border alone, one legal priority is to reunite the children with relatives in this country while their deportation cases proceed. But what happens to the unaccompanied immigrant children who have no relatives here?
There is a lot of love in this Columbia, Maryland, home. Dennis, a Honduran teenager, is teaching Spanish to his foster parents Leah and Mike. Dennis seems at home in this upper-middle class neighborhood. There are single family homes set amid large grassy lots, but this isn't the world he grew up in.
A tough life for a kid
“I started working when I was 10. My family they didn't have a lot of money, my father died when I was 8 years, so I had to work so I could help my family my mom and my brothers," Dennis says.
Dennis’ story begins in a small farming village in Honduras where as a child he picked coffee beans after dropping out of elementary school.
“My mom she’s usually sick, she couldn't take care of me and my brothers," he says.
Six back-breaking years in the bean fields of Honduras taught Dennis to be the man of his family. The drug cartel violence that would give Honduras the highest per capita murder rate in the world convinced Dennis that his only hope lay in a dangerous three month, nearly 3,000 mile journey north.
“My reason for never giving up was my family; I really wanted to help them," he says.
About three years ago, Dennis was at the vanguard of what would eventually become the army of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America streaming across the border today. But while 96 percent of them come to be reunited with relatives here, Dennis is among the roughly four percent of Central American kids with no family in the United States. Strangers in a strange land, they are truly the lost and lonely children of Central America.
"The youth that come to our program are here because it would not be safe to send them back home," says Matt Haygood, with Lutheran Social Services. "Either they have no one to go back to — that household may be an abusive household — they may have been trafficked here for labor or commercial sex purposes."
Unaccompanied immigrant children who fall into any of these categories such as Dennis are given either asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile status.
“They provide like a free lawyer, I told him my history, why I came to the United States. He took me to three courts, he gave all the information to the judge, and he said, 'Yeah there might be a chance to stay in the United States.'" Dennis says. "I mean my dream was to stay in the United States and when he said that, I didn't really believe it.”
Under this special status, Dennis became a ward of the federal government — a legal resident — and can stay in this country permanently.
A difficult transition
Lutheran Social Services arranged for his placement in a licensed foster home with Mike and Leah. Leah says it was a way for her to pay-it-forward.
"When I was in high school, my family had some difficult financial situations and had to move out of state and another family was willing to take me in and it was a wonderful experience for me and I always wanted to pass that along to someone else," she says. “It seemed a pretty natural progression for me as well, because I saw the need out there and saw the opportunity. We had a stable relationship and some finances and a spare bedroom and it just seemed like a good thing to do."
Foster parents such as Mike and Leah become part of a team that includes social workers and mental health experts. Haywood says the goal is to repair the broken lives of traumatized children.
“Getting them acclimated to their foster homes, helping them learn English, helping them get used to the community around them, and dealing with a lot of the stress that comes with living in a very foreign place," Haygood says. “The things that plagued them there are still kind of haunting them here."
Kichelle Coleman with Lutheran Social Services says sometimes these children get calls from abusive relatives demanding money, sometimes things get more sinister.
“Folks calling them and telling them they need to come back maybe because of some gang involvement threatening that they'll hurt a family member if they don't return," Coleman says.
A training class for future foster parents in D.C. 75 percent never make it to certification. (Armando Trull/WAMU)
A selective process with a big impact
At Lutheran Social Services’ office on Georgia Avenue a class is underway. It will certify people interested in becoming foster families.
Aneurin McCarthy, a prospective foster parent, is from war torn Sierra Leone in Africa and says he totally gets these kids.
"On my own, I've always been interested in giving back to the world, I've had my own ups and downs and seen a lot in life," he says.
But having a big heart isn't enough, as prospective foster parents learn about the difficulties this can entail while going through the accreditation process that lasts a few months. As many as 75 percent never finish.
Those who do become foster parents, such as Leah and Mike, are able to make a huge difference — just ask Dennis — the boy who at age 10 dropped out of school and picked coffee beans for six years in the most violent country on earth.
“Now that I have the opportunity to go to high school, I’m going to be graduating next year and I want to go to college," he says. He says he always tells people he wants to go into electrical engineering, but he's not really sure yet.
“He’s such a smart and funny and kind and caring person, and he has so much potential, and I see that continuing to grow, and I think this whole community and our country benefits from having him here. And again I'm so proud. He’s also brought so much laughter to our house we laugh so much more we have much more fun than when it was just the two of us," Leah says.
Lutheran Social Services of the Washington region has tripled its caseload of unaccompanied refugee children in the past year. The agency says it gets calls every day from federal authorities seeking foster homes for what could eventually be as many as 3,000 Central American children lost, lonely and with nowhere to go.