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Meeting Unaccompanied Minors Where They Are

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Jody Levison-Johnson and Jeremy C. Kohomban, Ph.D.

President and CEO of The Council on Accreditation, and President and CEO of The Children’s Village (respectively)

Meeting Unaccompanied Minors Where They Are

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Since 2004, human service organizations have served thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children. With their support, the majority of these children were safely reunited with family or a sponsor in the U.S. However, recent media stories raise questions about the treatment and mental health needs of these children, who often suffer from fear, anxiety and depression.

These emotional conditions don’t necessarily indicate a major mental health issue and are often situationally appropriate. While the presence of these challenges must be considered when designing effective interventions for this group of children, we must remember that the immigrant children of today are not different from the millions who historically left their homes and countries in search of a better and safer life in the U.S.

Their basic needs remain the same: to feel safe and to find belonging. Like the millions of immigrants who came before, they don’t need more government and charity. They need family. They need to be with people who accept and love them unconditionally. A testament to this is the fact that in the past 18 months, most immigrant children passing through The Children’s Village, a National Council member accredited by The Council on Accreditation (COA), had one question: “Are my parents okay?”

Given these circumstances, responsive organizations focus on creating safe, well-resourced, welcoming environments for these immigrant children, their families and sponsors. By doing so, we mitigate the impact of these life-altering transitions; address the situational mental health conditions of fear, anxiety and depression; and support physical and emotional wellbeing.

COA’s standards for serving unaccompanied children provide organizations with a clear framework for successfully addressing immigrant children’s needs. The standards focus on supporting youth safety and wellbeing, facilitating family involvement and providing necessary supports to children seeking physical safety, emotional safety and legal protection. They also guide organizations in the design of environments that are culturally and linguistically competent, trauma-informed and family-focused.

By preparing staff to understand that immigrant youth have varying backgrounds and may have experienced hardship on their journeys, organizations can hone in on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) six key principles of trauma-informed approaches to create a hospitable environment: safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice and choice; and respect for cultural, historical and gender issues. Organizations can implement these principles in multiple, and often overlapping, ways.

Take the first key principle: safety. Research on trauma-informed systems emphasizes the importance of children feeling physically and psychologically safe, with psychological safety defined as feeling safe within one’s self and safe from external harm. One way to promote psychological safety in residential settings is by tapping into the fifth key principle: giving children control and choice. For example, staff can ask a child what personal items will help them feel safe while in care. Organizations should allow children to bring items that provide comfort or work with them to determine what can be arranged.

Another principle is trustworthiness and transparency. COA standards suggest the need to engage in assessment practices that are trauma-informed, as well as culturally and linguistically responsive. Practices that are non-stigmatizing and non-judgmental, prioritize urgent needs and emergency situations and support the timely initiation of services whenever possible. Engaging in a needs-based assessment process where staff are cautiously curious about a young person’s experience will help establish trust and give everyone an accurate sense of what’s happening. This often results in the appropriate matching of supportive interventions.

COA and The Children’s Village believe that effective interventions for unaccompanied minors require that we mitigate the negative impacts of political rhetoric, rejection and harm experienced during immigration. We can do so by being grounded in the children’s social and cultural contexts, and by being sensitive to their optimism of being in the U.S. Here they, like countless others, can enjoy greater freedom and hope for safer and better lives.