91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dozens? 100? Nobody's really sure how many separated kids are in Michigan

titikul_b / Adobe Stock

It’s not Camila Trefftz’s job to track this, but she tries to give the best estimates she can: so far this year, she’s says she's probably seen about 12 cases of kids being temporarily placed in Michigan after they were separated from their parents at the southern border.

But if you count the kids separated from relatives overall, not just parents? Then that number skyrockets, Trefftz says. Dozens, definitely. Maybe close to 100? She's not sure. The youngest they’ve seen was four months old. Another is younger than two, she says.

Trefftz isn’t a government official. She works for a small, non-profit law office called theMichigan Immigrant Rights Center, which represents kids brought to Michigan in federal immigration custody. (That also includes “unaccompanied minors,” the term for children who arrive at the border without a parent, guardian, or sponsor in the U.S.) Really, she and her colleagues are just supposed to focus on representing these children in court.

But without any kind of clear, consistent tracking system in place, MIRC has become the de facto clearinghouse in Michigan for keeping track of how many separated children are living here, whether their families have been located, and what steps are being taken to reunify them.

“It’s something the state of Michigan needs to know, that is happening right in their backyard,” says Abril Valdes, an immigrant attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. “And although it’s happening right in our backyard, we still don’t know anything about it. We still don’t know anything about the children, other than what our partner organization, MIRC, is able to tell us.”

Credit Michigan Immigrant Rights Center
Camila Trafftz is the Unaccompanied Children Program Coordinator in MIRC's Kalamazoo office, but lately, she and her colleagues have become the de facto state organization tracking forcibly separated kids.

Asking the state to step up

Valdes is pushing Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office to create some sort of statewide tracking system for these kids.

“We need to know who is here,” Valdes says. “How many children are here? Not only the number, but how are they being treated? How many are in long-term foster care… [and] how many are in short-term foster care? And from there, have a state official be able to put out reports for the public to know whether they’re getting the services they need: mental health, medical; what does housing look like for them?”

Susan Reed, managing attorney at MIRC, says they’ve been trying to get Whitmer’s administration to create “an ombudsperson…to ensure maximum state attention to the conditions of immigrant children in federal and state custody in Michigan.

“We do currently represent every child brought to Michigan in federal immigration custody and are committed to sharing as much information as we have access to about those programs. However, we are an independent non-profit law office; our resources are limited and our access could change in the future.” 

Here’s how these kids end up in Michigan in the first place

Once a child enters the country, U.S. Customs and Border Protection takes them into custody.

Legally, CBP can only hold children for 72 hours (but in reality, 10 days is now closer to the norm, according to one MIRC attorney.) From there, the Office of Refugee Resettlement finds placements for them in shelters, group homes or foster care across the U.S. 

In Michigan, most of those placements are through Bethany Christian Services, a non-profit child protection agency based in Grand Rapids. During the family separation policy period last year, it provided small group homes andtransitional foster carefor 108 forcibly separated children, says Dona Abbott, Bethany’s VP of Refugee and Immigrant Services.

“Bethany staff worked directly to identify the location of and communicate with parents for every separated child in our care,” Abbott said in congressional testimony in February. “In fact, we contacted a parent for every forcibly separated child in Bethany’s care to develop a reunification plan.”

Who counts as “separated?”

When a separated child is referred to Bethany by the federal government, the circumstances are often unclear – did Border Protection decide their parents were dangerous? Did they not have the right documents to prove parentage? What about when they’re separated from extended family or unofficial guardians? Some of that information makes it to Bethany's case workers, and they in turn pass it on to the attorneys at MIRC.

But this is why Abbott, Bethany’s VP of Refugee and Immigrant Services, argues it shouldn’t be border patrol agents making these calls in a 72-hour-window.

“CBP is a law enforcement agency and their agents are not trained in child welfare best practice. Many more children could be kept safe by empowering child protection workers at the border to make decisions about the appropriateness of a separation,” Abbott said in an emailed statement. “Policymakers must work together to provide for the safety and well-being of those who are searching for safety in our country.”

We asked a spokesperson for Bethany Christian Services how many separated children have been placed in their care so far this year. They, in turn, referred us to the federal government for those numbers.

State officials: the feds don’t tell us who’s here

The confusion around these kids and their cases is further reason for Michigan to start paying better attention, Abril Valdes of the ACLU of Michigan argues.

“Definitely the family separation is what we need to be tracking, but it would be wonderful to track all the children [including those who are unaccompanied minors,]” Valdes says. “Because at the end of the day those are now Michigan residents, even if temporarily. And we want to know how they’re being treated and that they’re getting the services they need.”

Asked for comment, Governor Whitmer’s office referred us to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which sent the following statement:  

“The federal government does not provide information to MDHHS on the number of immigrant children separated from their parents at the border who are placed in Michigan through federal government contracts with private child-placing agencies. “Because they are placed by the federal government, Michigan does not have legal authority. The federal government is responsible for their care. However, the child-placing agencies are licensed by MDHHS, so the MDHHS Division of Child Welfare Licensing does make sure that licensing and safety rules are followed in the homes where these children are placed – just as the department does with children who are placed through the state’s child welfare system. The department also would investigate reports alleging that immigrant children are being abused or neglected while placed in a home. It is concerning to hear anecdotes about children in other states not being properly cared for while under federal government oversight.”

Update July 2, 2019: We got a response from the federal government! After days of being pointed from one department to another (CBP, ORR, HHS, etc) a spokesperson for the US Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families says 11 separated kids have been "transferred or placed with an ORR care provider in Michigan since January 2019." 

"The Department of Homeland Security refers minors to ORR. DHS may separate minors from parents or legal guardians for lawful cause and without force. HHS does not track whether force was used by DHS when separating a minor from his or her parent for cause. Nor does HHS use the term “forcibly separated.”

We ran that response past MIRC, and supervising attorney Ana Raquel Devereaux says that's pretty much their count as well:

"...[W]e believe there are about seven currently in custody in Michigan and we have counted thirteen since January of 2019, but this is a rough estimate (not an exact science) based on information we've been able to gather from the children and some other sources and sometimes this information doesn't match what ORR gets from DHS or their own inquiries with the children, thus the discrepancy. However, we are advocating for each child we deem to be separated from a parent and their full spectrum of rights, regardless of whether DHS or ORR also classify the child as separated from a parent."

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
Related Content