Sixteen-year-old Stephanny arrived in Los Angeles last March. After a lengthy trip with a smuggler from her home in El Salvador to the border in San Diego, then 23 days spent in federal youth shelters, she was elated to see her mother, whom she hadn't seen since she was 5.
At first, their reunion seemed like a dream come true. But within weeks, reality hit: Her mother, she learned, suffered from mental illness. Then there was stepfather, a man she'd never met.
“Since she worked a lot, I would stay alone with him and he would drink alcohol," said Stephanny, whose last name is withheld because she is a minor. "I would be alone with him, and I never felt safe…one time when he was drunk, he began to touch me."
She tried to tell her mother, who by then had grown abusive. But “what for?" Stephanny said. "She got upset with me.”
As the number of unaccompanied child migrants arriving from Central America has skyrocketed, federal officials have been scrambling to temporarily house them – and to place them with family members who can take custody while their immigration cases are pending.
But immigration service providers who deal with unaccompanied minors say not all of these family reunions are happy ones, and that this is a trend they are seeing more of as more child migrants strain the system.
Since last Oct. 1, more than 47,000 unaccompanied children under 18 have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border - more than double the number in fiscal year 2013 - and as many as 90,000 are anticipated to arrive in the coming year. Most arrive from Central America, where gang- and drug-related violence has been driving many families north. Some of these youths are sent for by relatives in the U.S., or sent here by their parents to live with other family members.
Unlike adult migrants, unaccompanied minors are initially screened by immigration agents, then go into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And as service providers describe it, the sheer volume of kids arriving is straining the system that's responsible for initially housing them, and for locating and screening U.S. family members.
Caitlin Sanderson, program director for Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles, said that as the number of kids has grown, she's seen the amount of time they are held in HHS shelters drop by half what it was just a few years ago, as federal officials try to meet the demand.
“We have really seen the requirements for reunification diminish, probably for over the past two years, I would say," Sanderson said. "I believe the average in fiscal year 2011 was about 72 days, now it is down to around 30 days. So that is a pretty dramatic decrease over the last few years of the time a child stays in ORR custody.”
For example, when an emergency shelter for unaccompanied minors opened earlier this month in Ventura County, federal officials said the goal was to hold youths there for no longer than 35 days on average before they could be reunited with family members or other adult sponsors.
A Health and Human Services official contacted didn't provide details as to the sponsor screening process, other than to say in an emailed statement that every child in their unaccompanied minors program is assigned a caseworker and that "sponsors are located and verified by that staffer, and background checks are conducted."
But sponsor screening isn't as extensive as it was even three years ago, say service providers like Sanderson, as the caseload of unaccompanied minors has multiplied but resources have not.
…”unfortunately, this had meant that the background check process that they do for some of these sponsors, as they call them, has diminished over time," Sanderson said. "And so we are seeing an increasing number of children being released into home situations that, frankly, are not safe for them.”
This includes homes in which the sponsors themselves check out, but there are roommates or significant others who could pose a hazard: For example, a case the Esperanza staff saw recently involved a teenage girl who was released to her day laborer father. He didn't have any problems himself – but he lived in a small apartment with several adult male roommates.
In Stephanny's case, the family knew that her mother had schizophrenia. But she doesn't always take her medicine, said Delila Salinas, the girl's aunt, with whom she's now staying.
"My sister's always had problems since she was young, but we never expected that she'd react so poorly with her daughter," said Salinas, who lives near her sister in Los Angeles.
A small number of these cases each year lands with child welfare officials; Cecilia Saco, supervisor with the county Department of Child Protective Services, said the county usually sees around eight to 10 cases a year involving unaccompanied minors who need to placed somewhere else – or in foster care - because of a failed housing arrangement.
Saco said her agency has yet to see the same kind of uptick in these cases seen by immigration service providers. But not all of these cases are reported or make it to a child welfare agency, Sanderson said. Many families take matters into their own hands - for example, as in Stephanny's case, where another relative stepped in.
While cases like hers are not the norm, Sanderson said she'd like to see "more time and care" taken with each child for background checks and home studies, as well as better access to legal service providers who may be able to detect additional red flags. She pointed out that with so many kids now in the system, it's ultimately a question of resources.
"It's not ORR’s fault that there aren't the resources they need for this," she said.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration requested an additional $1.4 billion in funding for fiscal year 2015, in anticipation of demand as more unaccompanied minors arrive. Several federal emergency shelters have been set up to house them, including in Ventura County, in Texas and in Oklahoma.