Catholic Charities Fort Worth leaders discuss efforts to help unaccompanied immigrant children

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

Correspondent

June 23, 2014

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Catholic Charities of Fort Worth CEO Heather Reynolds and Father Isaac Orozco show off the play therapy room used by CCFW therapists to help children in the UAC program. Reynolds and Fr. Orozco provided updates on the status of CCFW's Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program on June 20 at the Catholic Charities main campus in Fort Worth.

Hundreds of minor children are crossing the border into the United States without a caregiver, but it was the story of one youngster that captured the attention of reporters covering a press conference at Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW) headquarters on June 20.

Armed with cameras and microphones, media representatives heard how the faith and service-based agency is addressing the humanitarian crisis on the border by expanding its federally funded Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. At the request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities Fort Worth will increase the capacity at its shelter from 16 to 32 beds by June 30.

Heather Reynolds, the organization’s CEO, helped put a face on the immigration surge that could bring between 60,000 to 90,000 unaccompanied minors into the U.S. this year. CCFW recently cared for an eight-year-old girl from Guatemala who was sent to the U.S. by her aunt after other neighborhood children were kidnapped and returned home with their organs cut out.

“On her journey here, she was sold as a sex slave,” Reynolds elaborated. “Finally escaping, this 8-year-old child crossed the Rio Grande River and her cry for help was heard.”

The youngster was sent to the Catholic Charities Assessment Center where she was given a warm bed, nourishing food, medical care, and mental health therapy.

“We took her in and consoled her,” the CEO continued. “One of our proudest agency moments was when we reunited her with a family member living in the United States who will from now on give her the love and safety every child in this world deserves.”

In 2013, Catholic Charities’ UAC outreach assisted 200 youngsters at its Assessment Center for its International Foster Care program. All but three were reunited with family members living in the U.S. The others were placed in foster care.

Father Isaac Orozco, pastor of Holy Angels Parish in Clifton and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Morgan who represented the Diocese, explained why the Diocese of Fort Worth is partnering with Catholic Charities to address the crisis.

He reminded the gathering about another family who fled their home in Bethlehem for Egypt to protect their baby from violence. 

“We know them as the Holy Family. The father was Joseph and the mother was Mary,” he explained

Faced with the influx of young immigrants from Central America, Father Orozco observed some people wonder, “What would Jesus do?”

“I think the better question is who is Jesus for us today? A big part of our Gospel is to help, love God and our neighbor,” the priest added.

“We can’t always choose our neighbors but we can choose how we respond to their needs.

“So what we are doing here at the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth is helping those we find on our doorstep — the border,” Fr. Orozco added.

There are different political interests and issues that may cloud the situation.

“But our whole call as Christians — as Catholics — is to know, love, and serve the Lord,” he said. “It’s very simple.”

Reynolds pointed out that the agency expertise with refugee services to other nationalities and its family and children assistance programs make the agency instantly ready to handle the growing demands to help unaccompanied children.

“Although we are expanding capacity, we continually get children,” Reynolds said.

According to information gleaned from the young travelers, once federal agents detain them, processing at the border can take two or three weeks.

“One of our seven-year-old girls was held for over two weeks,” Reynolds reported. “She said they were only fed once per day and were held in cramped cells where they were forced to sleep on the floor with nothing but an aluminum blanket.”

Most children arriving in the U.S. from Central America travel by car, truck, or bus with a coyote, or smuggler. During the journey, they are given little food or water and fear drowning, prostitution, and other physical violence. Many have memorized a telephone number and are told who to contact in America.

In some cases, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement calls Catholic Charities and the children are flown to Fort Worth. A supervised phone call to their U.S. contact is allowed but a lengthy process precedes family reunification.

“We do a background check that includes a criminal history, full assessment of mental health, commitment to family, fingerprints, and income verification and that information is compiled and sent to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement,” she explained. “They give us the final okay that allows us to reunite family members with a child who is living with us.”

The turnover rate is two to four weeks depending on the situation.

Although Americans believe migrants flock to the U.S. for jobs, most are fleeing violence in their homeland.

“Children flee their homes generally because a growing extreme criminal presence threatens citizen security and creates an environment of fear,” Reynolds suggested. “Gangs have become a part of everyday life infiltrating neighborhoods and schools, controlling communities with the threat of violence, kidnapping, sexual assault, murder, and forcible recruitment of children into criminal activity.”

Unaccompanied children immigrants brought to Catholic Charities are screened to assess whether they are victims of human trafficking and if they are eligible for legal status in the U.S. Ranging in age from 5 to 13, they receive full medical checkups and vaccines as well as counseling.

“We provide them a safe place to live perhaps for the first time in their lives,” Reynolds said. “One of our little boys shared that when living in Honduras, he saw a stray dog running down the street with a human leg in his mouth. The child went onto say it was because ‘another person had been murdered and left in the street.’”

Program organizers will not where the children are housed while in Fort Worth for safety reasons but reporters were allowed to see a model of a typical room. Twin beds and dressers fill the space and each youngster receives clothing, toys, and toiletries. Most arrive at the location disease-free, hungry, and contaminated with lice.

“The first thing they get after a hug is a meal,” Reynolds added.

Fruit and watermelon are popular foods along with popsicles and ice cream. The young immigrants quickly become accustomed to other American fare like macaroni and cheese, pizza, and hamburgers.

Catholic Charities is accepting in-kind donations of clothing, shoes, and toys which can be dropped off at a warehouse located at 249 W. Thornhill Dr., Fort Worth, across the parking lot from the main headquarters. For more information email or call 817-413-3934. There is also a need for foster families to care for the children.

Catholic Charities USA and the USCCB are working to set up additional large shelters across the U.S. to help the growing number of migrant children.

See Also

Catholic Charities Fort Worth helping in crisis of unaccompanied alien children

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth (CCFW) is ahead of the times in responding to an “urgent humanitarian situation”: The thousands of unaccompanied children who are pouring over U.S. borders are picked up by border agents.

Catholic Charities and Bishop Olson share ways to assist unaccompanied immigrant children

Tom Strittmatter knows the importance of opening your heart and home to a young, parentless refugee. The St. Rita parishioner and his wife, Sharon, have welcomed three children into their family since joining Catholic Charities Fort Worth’s International Foster Care program four years ago.

Dallas_Press_Conference_BUTTON.jpgBishops Olson, Farrell address unaccompanied immigrant children crisis in joint press conference

Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth discussed the collective response of local Catholics to the Texas border crisis and appealed for more volunteer attorneys to represent unaccompanied minor children in immigration court during a joint press conference held July 21 in Dallas.

BUTTON-uac.jpgHundreds of minor children are crossing the border into the United States without a caregiver, but it was the story of one youngster that captured the attention of reporters covering a press conference at Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW) headquarters on June 20. Armed with cameras and microphones, media representatives heard how the faith and service-based agency is addressing the humanitarian crisis on the border by expanding its federally funded Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. At the request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities Fort Worth will increase the capacity at its shelter from 16 to 32 beds by June 30.

Published (until 6/23/2114)
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