A September 12 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Amy Rosenberg prompted several people to contact me about migrant children "being held" at a shelter in Atlantic County. This was news to me, and I was determined to see for myself what was happening. I called Center for Family Service, the organization operating the shelter, and spoke with the CEO there. CFFS merged with Atlantic County's Family Service Association and several of that staff moved over to CFFS. The CEO explained the organization's mission, talked about its history, and said all the right things to satisfy questions. But I wanted to see for myself, and contacted the COO of Center for Family Service, Eileen Henderson. After a couple of weeks, with Thanksgiving in the midst of trying to schedule a tour, I finally went over there yesterday. (the day before Thanksgiving wasn't available because the children were offsite at their first American Thanksgiving celebration.)
Here's what I found at the Juntos (Spanish for together) program:
10 staff were there to show me everything that happens there. Nurse, medical assistant, teacher, clinicians, social worker, program director, regional director. And a representative from the federal Office of Refugees.
The children, about 10, are unaccompanied minors and CFFS unites them with family/sponsors in the US. There length of stay depends on who the sponsor will be: If it's a parent, seven days; grandparent, two weeks, up to 30 days if not a blood relation. And the social workers do investigative work to ensure the children are going to the right homes. One of their specific roles is to keep minors from trafficking situations.
Yesterday, they were in classroom where they had just finished painting a map of the world, and getting ready to watch a documentary about the environment. They were encouraged to greet me in English, and were happy to have a visitor. Naturally, a couple looked anxious, but the majority looked happy. The staff say they love being in school all day, which is not common in their homelands.
They all receive new clothing when they arrive, as well as a medical assessment. There is a phone available to call home twice a week, and a "red" phone for emergencies, if a child doesn't feel comfortable talking with staff, they can call a hotline. The kitchen is well-supplied, and in addition to balanced meals, they receive rice and beans to make them feel at home (all the children I saw were from Central America).
I went with open eyes to look for signs of anything troubling, and I didn't see any. I think these children have a challenging time ahead of them, but in contrast with whatever forced them to leave their homes and families, it's positive.