What’s Behind the Unaccompanied Minors Boom

As we reported upon the completion of the 2014 appropriations process, funding for youth-related federal programs was mostly level with 2012-2013, while juvenile justice funding to states saw its third ugly haircut in four years.

But there was one youth-related item for which Congress saw fit to more than triple the budget. The appropriation for the Unaccompanied Minors program, which is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF), ballooned from $267 million to $868 million in 2014, which is exactly $368 million more than President Obama asked for.

It is one of the few dramatic increases in a youth-related spending line since the games of appropriations chicken began in earnest back in fiscal 2011. Youth Services Insider could recall only two boosts of that magnitude since that year: a major increase promised to the Bureau of Prisons, and a billion-dollar uptick in Head Start funding right before the Sequestration hit.

The surge in dollars will certainly find its way to youth-services providers, as well as state and child welfare systems. But some leaders at major youth-serving providers already involved with the Unaccompanied Minors program are wary of how big the program is.

When we saw the increase in appropriations, YSI’s first guess was that this might be an effort to expand federal assistance to young victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation. It is an issue that has gained media attention in recent years, and certainly youth who enter the country alone are one of the populations most vulnerable to that world.

For the second year in a row, Congressional appropriators instructed the U.S. Attorney’s Office to “carry out investigations into and prosecutions of cases involving sexual exploitation of children.”

Trafficking victims may indeed be helped by the new money, but that does not appear to be the impetus. The cash infusion is meant to account for a major increase in the number of minors entering the United States, many of them smuggled in with hopes of reuniting with parents or family living here without citizenship status. The skyrocketing number of kids in that situation has stressed the federal response capability, and many of those children are ending up in state or county foster care programs.

Unaccompanied children who enter the country and are detained by immigration are referred to ACF’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). It is ORR’s responsibility to determine their status and find a stable environment for them to live in. Services for those children are carried out by contract providers around the country, and presumably a lot of the new dollars will find their way to new or existing ORR partners.

That is actually the best-case scenario. Many of the children attempting a solo voyage can encounter violence on the border, get recruited into gangs, or taken by human traffickers.

“It is a journey filled with peril,” said the leader of one nonprofit provider that has served unaccompanied minors for years under a contract with HHS, but worries about the outcomes for the youths immigration never finds.

“We have created a good system” for serving unaccompanied minors, the leader said. “But is our policy creating a dangerous situation?”

The number of children referred to ORR by immigration officials was consistently between 6,000 and 8,000 until 2012, when it shot up to north of 12,000. Official numbers from 2013 aren’t available yet, but Kids in Need of Defense said in a recent report that HHS officials had quietly projected it would be between 24,000 and 26,000.

A source with one of ORR’s providers told YSI that federal officials have told him the number will be more like 70,000 by the end of this year, with the biggest surge coming from Guatemala. The National Association of Counties (NACO) cited an estimate nearly as high in a budget breakdown for members:

The reason for this increase is that 60,000 unaccompanied minors, many of whom end up in state and county foster care programs, are expected to cross the border this year due to conflicts around the world.

To read more about unaccompanied minors, read this excellent brief from First Focus.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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New York wants to use a fund for #FamilyFirst Act prep to prevent youth from aging out of #fostercare, but some counties say the money is already spent or earmarked https://bit.ly/3fU39MW #childwelfare