often find it difficult to let their guard down, partly due to
trauma and partly due to barriers of culture and language.
Torres Fernandez recently spoke with a Latina colleague
who had counseled two El Salvadoran children at a school in
Virginia. When her colleague met the children, they opened up
— finally seeing a face that looked like theirs and encountering
someone who knew their language.
“She said it was like an open wound — that the children
were bleeding, telling her all this stuff,” says Torres Fernandez.
Not only is it important for those working with immigrant
children to know the language, or have an interpreter available,
but “cultural brokers” are needed, too — people with an
intimate understanding of both the child’s culture and the
culture of the community he or she is entering, says Miller.
For example, mental illness is stigmatized in many cultures,
says Miller, including the Somali and Bhutanese cultures with
which she works. Latina/o culture has a similar bias, says
Torres Fernandez. So, she never uses the words “therapy” or
“counseling” with children.
“I just tell them, ‘I’m going to come and visit you and we’re
going to play games,’” she says.
For the past eight years, Etiony Aldarondo, PhD, associate
dean for research at the School of Education and Human
Development at the University of Miami, has worked with
the Immigrant Children’s Legal and Service Partnership in
Miami-Dade to promote the human rights and well-being of
undocumented, unaccompanied children through legal, social,
advocacy and mental health services. Aldarondo and his team
of psychology graduate students and community partners help
train and support staff at shelters that serve immigrant youth.
They help shift typical shelter culture to be more communal,
child-centered and evidence-based.
As part of this initiative, Aldarondo and his team developed
the Immigrant Children Affirmative Network, or ICAN, which
aims to help foster resiliency and hope in unaccompanied
minors. Two innovative parts of ICAN are the youths’ creation
of a “book of life” to help them reclaim different aspects of their
identity and the “Toma el Paso” board game, through which
they learn about the legal system and the various obstacles and
choices they will encounter as undocumented, unaccompanied
children in the United States.
In Boston, Hidalgo developed a psychosocial group
program called PATHS to Resilience that has been used with
children in some detention facilities. Since unaccompanied
minors may be hypervigilant and suspicious due to their
exposure to different types of trauma, Hidalgo says it is
important to help them develop trust and safe connections to
others. His program helped to build this through collaborative,
teamwork-building games among the children and between
staff and children.
Psychologists are also helping these children through the
National Child Traumatic Stress Network, established by
Congress in 2000 and funded by the Center for Mental Health
Services, part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration. The network is made up of institutions
and mental health providers nationwide that work to raise the
standard of care and improve access to services for traumatized
children, their families and communities. The network offers
training and education on childhood trauma, a wealth of
resources and ways to get immediate help for children at www.
childhelp.org or by calling the National Child Abuse Hotline at
With the large influx of unaccompanied minor children
dropping from summertime peaks, media and public attention
has moved on. But the humanitarian crisis is far from over,
says Kennedy. Migrant rates could soar again next year, while
children and adolescents who are already here — but not
receiving needed psychological and other services — are at risk
for dropping out of school, being unemployed and possibly
winding up in prison.
So what’s needed? Funding, for one, both for schools and
school-based services as well as for direct immigrant services
through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
say experts. Early last year, President Obama requested an
additional $1.8 billion to help care for unaccompanied minors,
but Congress did not pass the request.
More counselors trained in these children’s special needs and
cultures are also needed. The NLPA, under the leadership of
Consoli, Chavez-Dueñas and Torres Fernandez, has developed
guidelines for detention center workers and mental health
professionals to better help unaccompanied minors, which
will be published on the NLPA site ( www.nlpa.ws). Some keys:
making sure unaccompanied minors receive mental health
screenings once in U.S. custody and having culturally responsive
assessments. The guidelines include a variety of interventions
and therapeutic approaches to use with these children, such as
narrative therapy or allowing children to process their grief and
loss through a memorial wall.
Consoli hopes that as the spotlight on the border kids
has shifted, attention won’t similarly pass without necessary
measures being taken.
“Even though right now it’s a really hot issue, it is a
longstanding issue,” he says. “We’re hoping that it won’t peak
and pass — that it will get the actions that are needed.” n
Lorna Collier is a journalist in Chicago.