The Plight of Global Youth
The current exodus of Unaccompanied Children and Unaccompanied Refugee Minors from Central America is taking national attention, as well as, garnered unprecedented news coverage from around the world. Recently, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released an extensive report in March 2014, Children on the Run, depicting the factors of why Central American children flee their countries of origin and trek the dangerous migration path to the United States – oftentimes alone.
The UNHCR interviewed a little more than 400 children from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras being held in US custody by the US Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Refugee Resettlement. In fact, some of the testimony and data collected by the UNHCR’s researchers leading this investigation were from children being temporarily housed in the Crittenton Services for Children and Families (CSCF), licensed and nationally accredited, youth shelter for Refugee and Unaccompanied Minors.
“The UN report describing the plight of Central American children hits close to home as a number of the children, both boys and girls, we provide humanitarian relief services to have shared with our clinical staff that they or their families have witnessed, were threatened or experienced violence or sexual assault at the hands of organized crime as forms of punishment and fear tactics,” said Martha Jasso, Director of Communications, CSCF, “For those in our advocacy base, in particular our foster families, that have made the decision to support these traumatized, yet resilient, children we thank you for not judging their situation but rather extending respectful dialogue and a sincere interest in helping children at their most vulnerable.”
A number of specialized social services agencies from across the United States are being contracted to provide temporary humanitarian relief to children from around the world that have real claims to international protection. Crittenton is one such agency, with a focus on trauma-informed care, which is providing humanitarian relief services to international children awaiting their immigration court hearings and the determination of their fates.
Crittenton Foster Families Providing Humanitarian Assistance
Crittenton has a tremendously generous support base, which throughout the years, has been willing to answer pleas of humanitarian assistance when needed. One such example of this kindness has been the response of Crittenton Foster Families answering a call-to-action regarding the current humanitarian crisis facing Central American children.
The Valdez family of Southern California is one, of a number, of Crittenton Foster Families that have decided to assist Crittenton in providing safe and stable temporary housing to international children in need of assistance.
Erminia Valdez, is the matriarch, of the Valdez family and was the first Crittenton foster mom that led the way in providing temporary housing to children on the grounds of humanitarian relief.
The Valdez family has been a dedicated Crittenton Foster Family for the past six years and has provided a safe haven for mostly boys that have experienced violence, neglect, or abuse and that have fled their countries of origin.
In total, Erminia has been a foster mom to about nine boys, mostly from Central America, and continues to open her home to children experiencing childhood trauma as needed.
“The first boys that I offered my home to was Hairo and he arrived at my home when he was only 14-years-old and then came Junior he was 16-years-old,” said Erminia, “When I had them both in my home it jogged memories of my own story when I first came to this country, alone and without much, and this fact galvanized me with even more compassion to help take care of these children.”
She says that when she first immigrated to the United States, at 21-years-old, she worked in restaurants and as a childcare worker. Erminia learned how adapt to American culture, which included learning how to speak English, to drive a car, and working relentlessly to build a financial nest egg.
Today, the fruits of many years of labor paid off as the Valdez’s were able to attain and are incredibly grateful to fulfill their American dream. They are homeowners and small business owners as Erminia owns a house cleaning service.
“I let them [Crittenton children] know of my story and let them know that no one ever taught me what I know today. I taught myself and learned it the hard way, but that I want to teach them what I’ve learned so that they don’t have to suffer as much as I did,” Erminia said, “I tell them that they have the opportunity to go to school and to ultimately work with their heads and not just their hands. And I always remind them of the importance of learning English, in fact, I tell my biological kids to talk to them in English so that they can quickly learn the language and culture.”
As a foster mom, Erminia, does more than just provide food and shelter to the children placed in her care. She, like most mothers, is an advocate, mentor and social skills instructor to the children she has accepted as her own. She mentions that she takes every opportunity she can to teach the children as much “life” information as possible before they head off to the next phases of their lives – whatever that will be.
“When I drive them to their scheduled appointments I tell them to pay attention to where they are going so that they learn how to get to their destinations in the future,” Erminia said.
The entire Valdez family, including Erminia’s three biological children, help out with the everyday responsibilities of taking care of these Crittenton youth. Erminia states that the entire family takes turns in taking the children to their immigration court hearings, to doctor visits, scheduled meetings with social workers and other related functions.
Children Fleeing their Countries of Origin Due to Violence, Abuse, and Endangerment
One of the main factors “pushing” our international children to leave their countries of origin, in this case Central American countries, is due to what the US State Department is describing as the violence levels in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as being “critically high”.
Erminia has heard directly from the Crittenton youth in her care the reasons why they leave their home countries at such a young age, despite the dangers in making these harrowing journeys.
“I remember one of my kids from Honduras telling me once, ‘I never had the opportunity to be a child or even know what being a child is all about,” Erminia said and added, “The story of these children is that many don’t have parents and had to fend for themselves on the streets. No adequate clothing, no educational opportunities, and it is for this reason that in my home I made it a point that these children learned how to be children again.”
For a number of Central American children that Crittenton provides temporary humanitarian relief services to their testimonies and experiences they are sharing reflects a real sense of “credible fear” as to why they are leaving their homes in the first place. This precisely illustrates what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has recently documented and the reality that these children may indeed qualify for international protection.
“I also remember the story of Tobias whose story was brutal. He let me know that one of his uncles was involved in the ‘drug’ business and that one day this uncle lost the ‘drug merchandise’ he accepted to distribute, and it was at that moment that this uncle sealed the fate of this boy’s entire extended family, who were not involved in the ‘drug trade’. All the men in his family were targeted and killed by the drug cartels and the women were raped in their homes at gunpoint with no one able to help. This 16-year-old boy, his cousin and one other uncle were the only ones that survived because they fled to other countries. The remaining uncle left to another neighboring country but Tobias and his cousin fled to the United States,” Erminia said.
This young man was able to qualify for humanitarian protection and when he turned 18-years-old he left the Valdez home and transitioned to Crittenton’s Independent Living Program through the agency’s foster care department. Where he was able to find continued safety and stability.
Children Seeking Refuge and Humanitarian Relief Possibilities
For international children in Crittenton’s care that have credible claims for humanitarian relief they are issued one of the following visas: trafficked minor, victim of a crime, special juvenile status due to abuse or neglect, or asylum.
Erminia has had a number of the children in her care qualify for humanitarian relief and she says that they are not only grateful for the safety they were granted in the United States, but also do what they can to positively contribute to society.
In fact, two of the children that were in her care are currently working as contractors for a company that has worked on projects for the US National Park Service among other high profile clients. Erminia says that she was very proud to know that her boys, who includes Hairo mentioned in this article, were part of the team that helped with the restoration of the National Monument after it was damaged in the 2011 East Coast earthquake.
Erminia mentions that these young men, who are currently US Residents, are looking forward and working diligently to earn US Citizenship. They make sure that they are law abiding, and that they save their money because they would like to go back to school and earn a college education. Hairo actually recently got married and gives back to the Valdez family and his foster brothers he keeps in touch with in gratitude for the compassion he was once shown as a child.
In a phone interview Hairo mentioned that he was eternally grateful for what the Valdez family did for him and how they were willing to accept him as one of their own without judgment, “Even though Mrs. Valdez is not my biological mother, I still see her as my mother, she and the entire Valdez family protected me and did more for me than what my own biological family was not capable of doing.”
The Valdez family is adamant in creating a respectful, safe, and nurturing environment for the children they care for.
“From the minute the kids arrive to our home I let the kids know that I’m their foster mom and everyone under this roof are brothers regardless of what country they are coming from. So every time a new child enters my home I repeat my message and make it clear that all are expected to respect each other and to treat each other like brothers. They are not blood brothers but they are brothers nonetheless,” Erminia said.
She stresses that it is important for the children in her care to know that they should feel comfortable in being themselves and that they should feel as if they are in their home even if on a temporary basis.
“I was actually criticized by many people I’m acquainted with at the beginning when they learned that my family accepted taking this responsibility. They used to tell me how could I bring strangers into my home and even worse how could I bring teenage boys into the home as they may be thieves or much worse,” Erminia said and added, “In response to these negative criticisms I typically respond that these children have no family, they have no place to go, they have nothing and that what these children are looking for is safety, a home, a family, and a normal family life.”
Today, the Valdez family still keeps in touch with those boys that have been able to stay in the United States under humanitarian relief designation. Erminia keeps contact with them and continues to give motherly advice to them via telephone calls or text messaging, and during the holidays, if schedules allow for it, they gather for Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations.
“A number of years ago I used to watch programs regarding adoption and foster care and about children in need. I used to think to myself that one day I was going to adopt one of these children that no one wanted,” Erminia said and added, “I’m very happy now because I have lots of kids. Since I was a little girl I enjoyed helping others and I feel at peace when I can help. I enjoy seeing these kids making it through and becoming responsible adults. I’m content with knowing that I taught them how to look out for others in need of help. I let them know if I can open my home for you that you too can do the same for others that may need you one day.”
The Valdez family is happy to be working with Crittenton as they are happy to assist children especially those most vulnerable to violence and exploitation. They appreciate the continuous support Crittenton Foster Care staff give to foster families willing to accept this responsibility. The Valdez family enjoys the camaraderie among Crittenton Foster Families, as it is common to share advice from one another during training sessions and related gatherings.
“Life does change when you become a foster parent but not dramatically. We see these children as new adopted members of our family so we see this [process] as just part of normal family life. The only thing that does dramatically change is the need for a bigger table and more plates than before! But all is relatively the same,” Erminia said.
Crittenton Services for Children and Families of Southern California (CSCF) is a non-profit social services agency whose mission is to heal the wounds of abuse and neglect; strengthen families; and help troubled adolescents reach their full potential. Established and incorporated in 1966 Crittenton has a highly trained workforce operating 24 hours a day / 7 days a week providing comprehensive counseling, medical, and other support services to the clients in our care. We provide a full array of residential, in-home, community based, wraparound, mental health, foster care, and adoption services with a service planning area throughout Southern California that covers Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego Counties.