Maryland Family Has Fostered Dozens Of Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Jul 28, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the hot sun, on a long summer day, two toddlers play in the wading area of a community pool in a leafy subdivision just on the edge of suburban and rural Maryland. The two girls are wearing sparkle swimsuits and are dumping water-filled plastic pails over their heads. A few weeks ago, they acted like they'd never seen a pool before.

KRISTY: When they both came, they were terrified of the pool. You wouldn't believe it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah?

KRISTY: Terrified.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Kristy (ph). She's a foster mother, a very specific kind of foster mom who deals with children separated from their families at the border. The two girls with her today are Central American migrant children. Thousands of mostly Central American families and unaccompanied minors have been showing up on the border asking for asylum. As part of President Trump's zero-tolerance policies, families are still being separated for a variety of reasons. And even though the border is thousands of miles away, Kristy is on the front lines of this crisis as she exclusively fosters migrant kids. We visited her to get a sense of what that's been like.

Do you want us to take off our shoes?

KRISTY: No.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at her house, she shows me where the two little girls sleep.

KRISTY: So we have the beds and diapers and (laughter) the rocking chair because, inevitably, there's some rocking at night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because of federal rules, we can't identify the children and are only using Kristy's first name.

KRISTY: I haven't hung up pictures yet. But we have...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristy has only recently moved to this neighborhood from the city to get more space for the foster kids. Her large house where her two children and her husband also live is still pretty bare, lots of bedrooms and toys and a huge backyard.

KRISTY: We get a lot of kids. We take a lot of kids. We love having them. And so we want them to be able to have swing sets and trampolines.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's fostered dozens of migrant kids in the past 2 1/2 years. It all began because, one day, after seeing the news from the border, she had a question.

KRISTY: What happens to these kids that, you know, come across the border unaccompanied? And, you know, where do they go? And I had never thought about it. So once I thought about it, I just felt compelled. Like, I have to do something. I can totally help. I can do something. And it's only - our conviction for it has only gotten stronger as time goes on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a conviction based on politics.

KRISTY: The current policies and administration with separating more children and detaining children and the way that children are detained - you know, any kid that's in my house is, at least while they're here, safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's a conviction based on religion.

KRISTY: Jesus' most clear message in the Gospels is love. And so I can't, for the life of me, understand the other side of what that looks like, to not love on these kids and their families.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She and her husband have jobs. And there are her own kids and the foster kids. And so she's a constant whirlwind of activity.

KRISTY: I'm going to cut some of these up, if you'd mind, for their snack.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: While we're there, she dashes into the kitchen to cut up some strawberries for a snack for the kids. Another migrant child is coming this very night. And all she's ever told is their age, their gender and where they come from. But she has to guess everything else, including what to put on the table.

KRISTY: What they're going to like and how much they eat and, you know, what's she going to want for breakfast? You know, they usually have some kind of favorites or comfort food or - one of our little kids now loves pizza. And so she asks for pizza every day. You know, so we kind of just try to get staples.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristy is part of a program run by Bethany Christian Services, which is part of a national network of groups that have a contract with the government to take these kids in. This year already, around 550 kids have been put into temporary foster care. The children who get taken out of the massive kid detention centers and placed in families like Kristy's are usually migrant children who are most at risk - toddlers, teenage moms, those who are sick - kids who have particular needs and require more support. Kristy has welcomed them all.

KRISTY: We've had kids whose family members have been shot, who have seen family members be shot. Sometimes, if we're driving down the street and a police car passes us, you know, we've had kids that kind of tense up or seize up just because of their experience with authorities or law enforcement. And so sometimes, there's night terrors or waking up scared.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For the little ones especially, it's hard to be away from their families.

KRISTY: Separation anxiety is a big one. You know, sometimes, like, I can't even walk out of the room. Or, you know, I just have to reassure them. Like, I'm going to go get my shoes. I'll be right back.

(Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

KRISTY: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

KRISTY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristy has learned basic Spanish, as the kids don't speak English. And she has a background in education, which has come in handy. The children also attend a special day care center during school hours run by Bethany where they are given medical and psychological support, as well as education.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

KRISTY: What?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristy says a lot of the kids, like the ones here right now, call her mama.

KRISTY: Sometimes, I realize, oh, mom is the role, the person who feeds you, the person who, you know, changes your diaper and gets you food and wipes your tears and tells you to get down when you're climbing up too high and things like that. That's mom. And so I think these little kids just see that. And then they just - oh, that must be who you are. You must be mom. And so I've even had teenage mothers of toddlers and their toddlers call me mom as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The kids do get to speak with their real families regularly in organized phone calls. But those family members are sometimes back in their home countries or in detention. Others are here in the U.S. waiting for the children to be transferred to them.

KRISTY: One of my kids made a call last night and had a very - was just really excited after the call and very happy - and, you know, just see a difference in her face. But another kid on a call last night, you know, went to bed with tears in her eyes. And so it's just - it can be hard, especially when they have separation anxiety or when they're younger especially and they don't understand. And it's just a reminder of, I'm here. You know, this isn't my family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Kristy says she tries to keep them entertained, takes them out to dinner sometimes at a local Latin American restaurant.

KRISTY: That community specifically - the outpouring is ridiculous, like free food sometimes. Or here's my number, you know, what can we do for you, and things. You know, it's just - I think one of the unintended, positive consequences is seeing the good in people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The kids stay for a few weeks, sometimes longer. And then they are reunited with their families, not necessarily a parent, possibly a relative. Many of them cry when they leave.

KRISTY: I had to pry a little girl - like, I had to walk her to the plane door to get her on the airplane because she was clinging to me. And I knew that once she got reunited, it would be good. It's just that transition. It's scary, and it's hard. And they've been through a really bad transition already.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kristy wears a big smile. And she seems full of energy when we talk. But she acknowledges that, late at night, when the house is finally quiet, it can all feel overwhelming.

KRISTY: You know, I can't take anything above what's already weighing on my heart. And I feel it, you know? I can feel it in my chest. It's palpable. I feel it, the weight of it, you know, not just the kids coming in and out and falling in love with kids that walk out your door that you may never see again. That part is hard, but it's just, you know - it's just, when I see these babies, I see their moms. And they're not with them. They're with me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Kristy. She's a foster mom to migrant children in Maryland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.