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Groups scramble to help unaccompanied minors

They traveled to the United States alone, some fleeing war and violence. Then the only agency in Philadelphia authorized to help them shut down suddenly.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

On March 16, Peter Gottemoller got an email saying his employer, Lutheran Children & Family Services, was terminating his contract, effective July 1.

Everyone on staff, in fact, got the same email. The social service agency was one of only three refugee resettlement agencies in Philadelphia, and foster care, adoptions, and afterschool programs were among the other services it offered. But the entire organization, except an elder-care program, was set to shut down.

Agency officials told local media that the organization’s serious financial problems led to the decision to abandon all services except elder care.

The shutdown was particularly problematic for the children who were in the agency’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program – which Gottemoller directed – especially because it was the only one in the state that was authorized to resettle these children.

Unaccompanied refugee minors make up a small percentage of the refugees who are resettled in the United States each year. In the 2015 fiscal year, the United States resettled just under 70,000 refugees, according to the State Department’s Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System data. President Barack Obama has made a push to increase that number to 100,000 by 2017. But according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, there are only about 1,300 children in the unaccompanied minor program.

These children go through the same process as any other refugee, usually including referral by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees; extensive background checks by the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and FBI; medical checks and sponsorship confirmation by one of the nine national refugee resettlement agencies; and screenings by the International Organization for Migration. The process generally takes 18 months to two years before someone is approved for refugee status, just as it does for refugee families.

But for children who have been separated from their families by unimaginable circumstances, once they arrive in the United States, the process more closely resembles that of domestic foster care rather than refugee resettlement. The children are set up in school, sent to live in foster homes, and meet regularly with staff.

Only two national refugee resettlement agencies — United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service and their affiliates in about 20 locations throughout the country — have Unaccompanied Refugee Minor programs.

Lutheran Children & Family Services was one of these affiliates and had about 100 children in the program when the organization announced it was shutting down.

The reimbursement rates for many of the services that the agency provided have remained stagnant, in spite of cost increases. Some agencies have endowments, but Lutheran Children & Family Services was not one of them. By the time the organization was closed, it owed its parent company, Liberty Lutheran, more than $4.5 million, according to media reports. Pennsylvania owed the agency $7 million, but budget issues in Harrisburg made it impossible for the organization to get paid.

At the time of the shutdown, the organization had custody of the refugee children and most were placed in foster homes. The foster parents, the children, and the agency staff had no idea the closure was coming.

“It was a nightmare, it was absolutely a nightmare. We got as much done and as many people processed as we could before June 30, but other folks were sort of left in the middle of the process,” said Gottemoller. “You can’t just stop foster care service. Something has to happen.”

So Gottemoller and his staff, as well as Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service, the national refugee resettlement organization that the agency was affiliated with, got to work figuring out what to do.

About a month after the news broke, the agency secured a new local affiliate that agreed to take over not only the refugee resettlement program, but also the program for unaccompanied minors.

They chose Bethany Christian Services, a social services agency that had been functioning in Philadelphia for decades and also had experience with a minors program through their office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Although the institutional support was there, the process of refugee resettlement was completely new for the Southeastern Pennsylvania team.

The State Department pays refugee resettlement agencies a set amount for each refugee they work with. Toward the end of the fiscal year, local resettlement agencies often get a flood of arrivals at the same time. Unfortunately for Gottemoller and his team, that uptick in arrivals came right as they were trying to make the switch between agencies. In their first two months, Bethany’s new refugee resettlement team resettled twice the amount of refugees that is normally expected.

It was chaotic at best.

“We still had to do home visits and deal with emergencies that come up,” Gottemoller said, as well as all the other expected and unexpected tasks that come up in running a foster care program. “And then on top of it, we had to do all the paperwork. All the files needed to be copied because LCFS needed their own records and Bethany needed records of the children, and not just the most recent ones.”

Additionally, they had to make sure all the existing foster families were in compliance with Bethany’s requirements and regulations.

The transition has also had an impact on the children that the program is intended to serve. Although they can stay in the program until they are 21, about 15 children decided to emancipate early.

“With all that was going on, they [the minors] started to get skittish, some of them thinking that they would kind of just be left alone to fend for themselves. We had a higher than normal number of kids who decided to emancipate early,” said Gottemoller. “We had a number of kids say, ’Hey, I’m gonna go because this is all too difficult for me to handle and I don’t know what is going to happen.’”

Gottemoller said that the team tried to help both the children and the foster parents by reassuring them that it was simply a transition period at the top level and that most of the staff they were working with would be kept on board, but for some, that reassurance was not enough.

The closure also had an impact on the landscape of refugee resettlement in Philadelphia, as the two other agencies that do this work in the city – HIAS Pennsylvania and the Nationalities Service Center – became concerned about the outcome, given that the sole contract to deliver services to unaccompanied minors in Pennsylvania was up in the air.

Judi Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS, said, “We are aware of each other’s work, and we build these communities together. And after the initial resettlement, many of us work with the refugees after we’ve resettled them in other programs. So while someone may start out as a ‘HIAS refugee,’ they quickly become a ‘Philly refugee,’ [with] a lot of cross-referrals.”.

As the global refugee crisis escalates, the local resettlement affiliates must rely on each other with increasing urgency. HIAS, which is known for its strong legal team, spent a significant amount of resources working with Lutheran Children & Family Services to acquire refugee status for unaccompanied minors who came to the United States as asylum-seekers and did not have refugee status when they arrived. But once the lawyers at HIAS secure refugee status for their clients, the children still need to go through the unaccompanied minors program. Those pipelines have been stalled for now.

“It’s pretty collaborative. … For years we worked closely with the Lutherans when they housed children who were unaccompanied but who didn’t come in originally as refugees, and they’ve been ending that,” said Bernstein-Baker.

Refugee families only receive three months of government support when they arrive in the United States, including housing, help with finding a job, and English classes. After that, the families are on their own. So, like most resettlement agencies, Lutheran Children & Family Services also funded post-resettlement programs, such as afterschool programs and those provided by organizations like the Philadelphia Refugee Mental Health Collaborative in South Philadelphia. The closure left these supplemental programs scrambling to find other ways to pay their bills.

Gottemoller, who now runs the refugee resettlement program at Bethany, has been trying to make the transition as smooth and quick as possible, despite the circumstances.

“It’s gone pretty well actually,” he said, “but it’s just a grind.”

One way they made the transition smoother was by hiring staff from Lutheran Child & Family Services. About 65 percent of the agency’s staff was hired by Bethany to run the new programs. And in some cases, they are using the same office space.

Bethany is set to meet its target number of refugees resettled and continue its work with unaccompanied refugee minors.

“Bethany really stepped up,” Gottemoller said.

Melanie Bavaria is a freelance writer and videographer in Philadelphia.

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