Mitigating disaster

Christian adoption org offers child refugees ‘hope for a home,’ but is being paid by the government to implement family separation

The Citrus Heights branch of International Christian Adoptions, which helps find foster home placements for child refugees in California, has been pulled into the national debate about family separations.

The Citrus Heights branch of International Christian Adoptions, which helps find foster home placements for child refugees in California, has been pulled into the national debate about family separations.

Photo illustration by Maria Ratinova

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the July 19, 2018, issue.

The only sign that migrant children came through here was a literal one, pinned to the brick chimney column of a stately, two-story home anchoring a sleepy cul-de-sac in Citrus Heights. The sign read, “Institute for Children’s Aid | Division of: International Christian Adoptions.”

Since the federal government began splitting families apprehended at the border in May as part of a zero-tolerance crackdown on asylum-seekers, some of the separated children had passed through this way-station on Birdcage Street. Last month, International Christian Adoption’s executive director Charlotte Paulsen told The Sacramento Bee that her nonprofit had found temporary foster home placements for at least a dozen kids “who crossed the border alone or were separated from parents at the border,” the newspaper reported.

Paulsen couldn’t tell The Bee how many children exactly, or where in California they ended up.

The inability to track some 3,000 children through the federal government’s immigration process has become an epic quandary for President Donald Trump. It was his administration that conspired to separate families and missed a court deadline to reunite them. In the meantime, child-aid providers such as International Christian Adoptions, which rely heavily on federal funding, are being conscripted to warehouse the orphans that the White House has created.

A receptionist at ICA’s Temecula headquarters referred all questions to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has long paid nonprofits, shelters and foster homes to soften the landing for migrant children fleeing desperate circumstances. A resettlement spokesperson didn’t return three calls seeking comment. Paulsen declined an interview after not responding to two earlier emails.

The silence isn’t surprising. In the weeks since Trump, at the urging of senior policy analyst Stephen Miller, exploded U.S. and international norms, much of the world has recoiled at the seemingly punitive whims of the administration. But that doesn’t mean ICA’s lips are sealed.

“Grantees are free to talk to the media about what they do. … There is just no basis for a grantee saying, ’We refuse to tell you what we do.’ That is their choice, that is not federal policy,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “Not talking despite the fact that they’re clearly able to is something to note.”

Greenberg would know. Before joining the nonpartisan think tank in July 2017, he spent eight years in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services division that oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, and helped loosen restrictions on government-subsidized care providers speaking to the media.

Paulsen was emailed a link to ORR’s media policy, but referred questions to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service out of Maryland, which works with organizations like hers to advocate for migrants and refugees entering the country. LIRS has been sharply critical of the family-separations policy, and says its network of local partners is trying to mitigate the damage the administration has done by finding accommodations for the children and connecting their parents to transportation, legal referrals and mental health counseling.

But providers such as ICA may be constrained by the strings of their funding agreements, Greenberg noted. While they can choose to accept federal money, once they do they may be unable to refuse cooperating with federal policy decisions that go against their values. Not unless they want to lose funding, that is.

“Overall, this policy has put the shelters in a terrible position, essentially forced to be the places that are implementing the family separation policy,” Greenberg said.

ICA claimed almost $1.2 million in revenues in 2017, more than two-thirds of that in federal grants, according to Foundation Center, which collects 990 tax-exempt filings from nonprofits to the Internal Revenue Service. ICA’s reliance on government funding actually increased between 2016 and 2017: The adoption charity experienced a $20,000 drop in donations, according to its member profile on the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Paulsen and president Laura Duke average humble take-homes of about $40,000 a year, according to 990s.

On its 990 filing, ICA says its mission is “to offer children hope in the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, hope for basic needs, hope for an education and bright future, and hope for a home in a family they can call their own.”

Hope. That mission has taken a beating under Trump.

During the Obama administration, Greenberg says ORR’s job—caring for migrant kids escaping war atrocities, gang violence, collapsing economies or just the garden-variety domestic abuses that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently deemed unworthy of American generosity—was challenging enough.

“Children arriving at the border often faced serious trauma, either in their home countries, in their journeys or both,” Greenberg said.

ORR largely relied on nonprofits to temporarily lodge migrant youth while government case workers tried to find relatives or friends living in the United States who could take custody of the minors as their asylum requests slogged through the bureaucracy.

When border crossings by unaccompanied minors from Central America surged in 2014, ORR turned to what are called in-flux shelters, such as military bases or other federal properties, to house the additional teens, Greenberg said. These mass congregant facilities aren’t subject to the same licensing requirements and monitoring that traditional shelters are. Because of Trump’s policy shift, they’re being used to lodge younger children for longer periods of time.

“This is largely due to a policy decision rather than an unanticipated increase in arrivals,” Greenberg explained.

As has been previously reported, there was little advance planning for such a far-reaching policy shift. Greenberg cited “a massive failure to coordinate” between Homeland Security and Health and Human Services for creating a situation where “parents don’t know where their children are.”

“The policy was put into place without any apparent plan for how parents know where their children are, for how children know where their parents are, for how they would even be reunited,” he added.

There were upward of 9,000 children in the care of ORR shelters before the policy change in May, Greenberg said. By his count, there are now nearly 12,000.

“That’s a huge growth in a very short period of time, mainly because of family separation,” he said.

That’s glutted ORR’s pipeline. In 2014-15, the average length of detention for an unaccompanied minor was 34 days, Greenberg said. This year the average has increased to 56 days. In 2014-15, nearly 60 percent of migrant children were released to the custody of a parent. This year that figure is down to 42 percent.

The White House missed its court-ordered July 10 deadline to reunite 103 separated children under the age of 5 with their parents. On July 12, the administration announced it had reunited 57 children with their parents, but deemed the rest “ineligible” due to safety concerns or because 12 of the children’s parents had already been deported.

The administration has until July 26 to reunite nearly 3,000 older children.

California has joined several other states in suing the administration to produce more information about how the policy played out. The state accepts more unaccompanied minors than any in the nation, with 6,268 placed with sponsors in the state during the 2017 fiscal year alone, according to a legal declaration from M. Marcela Ruiz, chief of the Immigration and Refugee Programs branch of the California Department of Social Services.

Since 2014, providers working with migrant children in the state have submitted 474 petitions for asylum.

As of June 29, 51 migrant children separated from their families were staying in foster and group homes around California, according to a declaration from Jean Chen, administrator of the Children’s Residential Program under the state licensing division.

For those unaccompanied minors who win an eligible immigration status as refugees, survivors of human trafficking or domestic violence, Cuban or Haitian entrants or have been granted asylum, ORR pays for their case management, family reunification assistance, medical referrals, transitional housing and schooling at three California nonprofits—Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Crittenton Service for Children and Families, and International Christian Adoptions. Last year, 289 unaccompanied minors were eligible for this aid, Ruiz’s declaration states.

ProPublica identified ICA’s Citrus Heights branch as one of the disparate nonprofits that assists the federal government by temporarily housing unaccompanied minors seeking refuge in the United States. While ICA specializes in domestic and international adoptions, it also offers religious counseling and pregnancy ministry, according to its Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability profile.

ICA says on its tax-exempt filing that it formed in 1990, but says on its website that it “began long before that.” 1990 was when ICA became licensed by the state and it’s had an almost spotless record since then, according to a review of facility evaluation reports by the California Department of Social Services’ Community Care Licensing Division. (There were two in 28 years.) The organization achieved Hague accreditation a decade ago.

On a recent weekday, the blinds were drawn at the home where ICA runs its foster care program for immigrant and refugee children. Inside, a woman said what the others had: She couldn’t discuss the nonprofit’s work. She wasn’t even allowed to explain why the federal government was answering questions on its behalf. Not without the permission of the executive director, who hadn’t responded to phone calls or emails.

No children could be seen or heard in the lobby.

Greenberg, a former acting assistant secretary of the U.S. government’s Administration for Children and Families, didn’t have direct knowledge about ICA as an organization, but said ORR sometimes turned to transitional foster-care models to house very young immigrant children and pregnant or parenting teens rather than lodge them in government-run shelters.

“The recognition was that, on the whole, it was better for children to be in a home rather than in an institutional setting,” he said. After a pause, he added, “But we didn’t anticipate a situation like this.”