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D.C. Area's Safety Net For Immigrant Children Is Stretched Thin, Report Says

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Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the  Karnes 
County Residential Center,  a temporary home in Texas for immigrant women and 
children detained at the border. Many of the unaccompanied children from such facilities have been relocated to the D.C. region.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center, a temporary home in Texas for immigrant women and children detained at the border. Many of the unaccompanied children from such facilities have been relocated to the D.C. region.

The phones can't stop ringing at Ayuda, a nonprofit serving Latinos in the District and Northern Virginia. Its name means "help" in Spanish. And Ayuda — like many of the local NGOs working with Central American minors and their families needs a lot of ayuda itself. The arrival of more than 7,000 traumatized Central American children last year in the general D.C. area has stretched service providers to the breaking point.

"It feels like we are constantly running a little bit behind the ball," says Karine Noncent Shaw, an attorney with Ayuda. "I don't think that this is a temporary thing, I think that this is a consequence of bad conditions in other countries of children wanting a better future and believing that the United States offers that."

Later today, Ayuda and other nonprofits that offer legal, medical and social services to these youth and their families will present a study showing their resources have been stretched to the breaking point.

The report's conclusion: "The kids are going to be forgotten and fall through the cracks," says Abel Núñez, executive director of the D.C.-based Central American Resource Center, or CARECEN. Nunez says there aren't enough mental health, immigration and education experts who speak Spanish and are culturally competent to work with these children and their families.

"All the service providers that are in the school system and are trying to provide wrap-around services are overwhelmed," he says.

It's likely that sense of being overwhelmed won't go away any time soon according to an analysis of border patrol statistics by the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank specializing in the region. The organization says the surge in unaccompanied minors has slowed. But Adam Isaacson with WOLA says a projected 40 percent reduction still would mean tens of thousands of Central American children would be detained by federal authorities this fiscal year.

"If like last year one-sixth, one-seventh of them wind up in the metro D.C. area you're looking at three or four thousand new kids here by our estimates," he says.

No peace at the source

Conditions are getting worse in El Salvador, the country that by far has sent the largest number of unaccompanied minors to metro DC area.

Last year 3,875 people were murdered in El Salvador — a 56 per cent increase from 2013. More troubling is that in 2015 the murder rate has soared. This past March, 481 people were murdered there, making it the deadliest month in a decade. The majority of those deaths are gang-related, experts say.

Activist Luis Cardona says the children who are fleeing violence in their countries should be given some type of asylum or refugee status.

"Our federal government is set up to provide a very comprehensive system of care that responds to the needs of those refugee children, and because our government has basically chosen not to give them that status it's left many jurisdictions all over the country having to peacemeal a strategy to respond to the many needs of these children and families," he says.

Meanwhile, at Ayuda, the phones keep ringing.

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