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Comforting Children During Family Separation Is Priority For Catholic Charities Fort Worth

Julia Reihs
KUT News
Demonstrators rally against the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy of separating families crossing the Mexican border, at the Texas Capitol in Austin on June 14, 2018.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth says it's housing a dozen children who were separated from their families at the border after fleeing violence in Central America.

The boys and girls range from 5 to 12 years old and come from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Heather Reynolds, the nonprofit’s CEO and president, tells NPR.

“All of them have gone through traumatic experiences back home, which made them come on this journey with their family to begin with,” Reynolds said.

Catholic Charities is one of several groups across Texas taking in the thousands of children who’ve been separated from their parents after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Many have been placed in detention centers and other facilities, mostly in South Texas.

The Trump administration has asked the Department of Defense to find housing for up to 20,000 migrants. It’s not clear yet whether that housing would be for children or families.

President Trump this week signed an executive order to stop family separations at the southern border. Now, the thousands of children who were separated have to be cared for while they wait to be reconnected with their family.

And those family reunions aren’t guaranteed.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth takes in children referred by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. The nonprofit has been working with immigrant children and families for several years.

Reynolds says the goal is to make the kids feel safe and try to reunite them with their families.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth isn’t able to track down family members in all cases, but in many, they can get in touch, Reynolds says.

Processes to reunite families were in place before the Trump administration’s controversial “zero-tolerance” policy took effect in the spring, but it’s been more difficult the past seven weeks, Reynolds says.

“We’re in a very heightened time period, which makes things much, much harder than it has in the past,” she said.

Interview Highlights: Heather Reynolds

On caring for children separated from their family members

So much of what we do, and oftentimes it’s about two to four weeks that these children are with us, is really about stabilizing that child because that child has undergone significant trauma. A lot of times we spend the first few nights with the child waking up crying or with nightmares because they have undergone something pretty, pretty tough — that journey and then also the trauma of being separated from family. Our main goal is to just really begin to make them feel safe again.

On the uncertainty of children being reunited with family members

I think when people say that, a lot of what they’re saying is in President Trump’s executive order, it did not specifically state what the plan was for reunification of this heightened time that we just experienced over the last seven weeks. There is a process, though, that we do have currently about reuniting family members and their children. We have had parent separations before the last seven weeks. We definitely have seen that heightened over the last almost two months. But we’re continuing to follow the guidance that [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] gives us to file the paperwork, the incident reports, all of that that’s necessary to try to reunite parent and child.

On communicating with children about their situation

The kids all know that our goal is to get them back in contact with their parents and back placed with their parents and that we can’t promise them anything — we don’t know if that will be in the U.S. or back in their home country. We will definitely work to get their parents' input on that. A lot of times when parents do get deported, we will contact that parent and ask if they want the child deported back as well or if they would like the child to be with a relative in the United States. We want the parent to have as much say in that as possible.

On Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson’s criticism of the “zero-tolerance” policy

As a Catholic, our utmost thing as a church is really right to life, respecting life, the dignity of the human person and family. And when we compromise that, we are really off our moral compass as a country. Just as the bishop spoke out very clearly to the Trump administration about what was happening on the border, he also expressed gratitude for the president’s executive order, and I definitely stand in solidarity with the bishop on that.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.