“Our job is really not the circumstances that brought them to us, it’s to care for them and keep them safe,” said Eileen Henderson, COO at the Center for Family Services.
Henderson’s Camden-based agency got a $4 million contract to care for unaccompanied minors picked up by U.S. Border Patrol. Part of the stream of unauthorized immigrants across the southern border, they comprise four moms and their babies, plus 19 boys and girls aged 13 to 17 who are now sheltering with the Center for Family Services. Three of those teens were forcibly removed from their parents.
“In general, the youth are extremely grateful to have a warm bed, to have food. Some of them haven’t eaten for days before they’ve gotten here,” Henderson said. “And their deep heartfelt struggles are shared with professional therapists, so we more focus on how can we give you some normalcy for a short amount of time, connect you with people who love and care about you.”
Henderson says the teens stay in the center’s network of 17 unidentified safe houses across southern New Jersey — and that they’re well cared for. She says no one is confined.
“We’re not a locked facility. The youth are determined to be low-risk for wanting to run away, and low-risk for harming themselves or anyone else,” she said. “They need a safe place to go with the goal that we’re going to get them back to their family whenever possible.”
The center works to help place kids with family members who could be located anywhere in the U.S. So far, she says, 90 kids from the southern border have been processed through Camden. It’s the only agency in New Jersey with a federal contract to care for these kids. New York’s got several, and recently more than 200 children were housed in Harlem’s Cayuga Center unbeknown to an angry Mayor Bill DeBlasio. Henderson tries to block out the politics.
“It’s a worry. It’s a weight. But again, it’s not something we have control over. We work with people in extreme poverty, we work with victims of violence,” said Henderson. “We just know that our respectful, trauma-informed treatment of individuals makes a difference and it keeps them safe and it keeps everyone safe.”
Volatile emotions and divisive politics make this a touchy topic. Henderson says they’re waiting to see whether any rule changes impact the flow of kids into their care. But she pleads with fanatics on both sides of the aisle to understand these are just kids.
“My concern would be where would you want the children to go? Do you want them in a safe place with professional staff that are going to care for them? Where are they going to go?” she asked. “I would that hope no one would try to interfere with children’s lives.”
The agency said children stay an average of 30 days. They expect to see 300 pass through their facilities within the next year.