SAN DIEGO – Chris Umphlett and his family worked in small ways to help the 12-year-old girl from Honduras — who barely uttered a word when she arrived after crossing the Mexican border alone — feel comfortable in their Michigan home.
The couple and their four young children who live in the city of East Lansing invited her on walks and bike rides, and watched Disney movies with Spanish subtitles. A Honduran woman from their church made a home-cooked Honduran meal of meat and red beans and tres leches cake, which got a smile.
“I imagine her first introduction to the U.S. was probably not super friendly, was probably confusing,” said Umphlett, 37, who works for a software company. “We tried to give her a better experience.”
As a record number of children fled violence from Central America and crossed the Mexican border alone this spring, most were sent to large-scale emergency shelters that the Biden administration quickly opened at military bases, convention centers, and fairgrounds.
This 12-year-old was one of the lucky ones, instead placed with an American family while U.S. officials contacted and vetted her mother, who lives in Texas.
Transitional foster homes, where families are licensed to care for migrant children, are widely considered to be the best option for kids in U.S. custody, especially for minors who have been traumatized, are very young, pregnant or are teen parents and require extra emotional support.
Yet hundreds of transitional foster care beds at family homes and small group facilities are not being used, according to government data. Four providers told The Associated Press that they have licensed foster families ready to take children. Two providers said about a third of available beds over the past month were not used. The others declined to specify.
Providers say interest in fostering migrant kids is booming with Americans getting vaccinated and virus-related restrictions being lifted on daily life. They are urging the government to move more kids into foster homes.
“The United States rejected large-scale, institutional care for children more than 110 years ago, and we shouldn’t accept it today for children who are seeking protection within our borders. Children belong in families,” said Chris Palusky, head of Bethany Christian Services, which places migrant children in foster homes.
While there are not enough families licensed yet to take in the thousands of children in US custody, advocates say the homes could take many of the kids under the age of 12 and other vulnerable youth, such as pregnant teens, now at the government’s unlicensed shelters. At the Los Angeles County fairgrounds in Pomona, last week there were some 300 children under the age of 12 among the nearly 1,400 minors housed there.
The risk of psychological and emotional harm grows the longer kids are in shelters, according to a June 22 federal court filing by the attorneys monitoring the care of minors in U.S. custody as part of a longstanding court settlement.
At the end of May when about 500 transitional foster care beds were unoccupied, there were 5- and 6-year-old children who had spent more than a month at the shelters, according to the court filing.
“What a child receives at a shelter will never compare to the love of a parent caring for a child,” said Kayla Park of Samaritas, the provider that connects the Umphlett family with migrant children. “They might tuck them in bed at night or maybe the family’s children play with them. That kind of human interaction is so necessary and it can’t be replicated in a shelter."
The Biden administration said it's not a matter of simply filling beds. Some siblings might have to go to a shelter to stay together or to have the space to quarantine if someone tests positive for the coronavirus, so there is a need to leave beds unoccupied to deal with circumstances as they arise, Health and Human Service Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters last week.
“You take a hit trying to completely maximize your space,” Becerra said when asked about the unoccupied licensed beds after visiting a shelter housing 800 children at Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso, Texas, that has been plagued by complaints.
Providers agree foster care is more complicated for placements because age and gender must be taken into account, especially in homes where the migrant kids might be sharing rooms with the family’s children, like in the home of the Umphletts, who only accept girls 12 and younger.
And the pandemic restricted things further. Many families did not want to take a child directly from the border for fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.
Other families were not equipped to take in someone while they worked at home with kids doing virtual learning, like the Umphletts, who did not take anyone until March of this year.
But providers, like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, are seeing a huge increase in families interested in fostering migrant kids, providing an opportunity to seize, said its director Krish O’Mara Vignarajah.
“I truly believe if we invest and focus on building out this network of prospective foster care parents, these homes can and should be the medium to long-term solution so we don't have to rely on influx facilities in the future," she said.
The Honduran girl stayed at the Umphlett home for one month until mid-April. Two months passed before Umphletts got another referral for another Central American child.
“I hope they are sending kids to foster homes before sending them to a convention center,” Umphlett said. “A home with a family is always better than a mass camp, even if you’re being well cared for and not neglected.”
Umphlett’s family saw a transformation in the shy Honduran girl during her stay. “At first she was so shy, she wouldn’t take to anything,” he said.
With time she opened up and joined in on bike rides and playing with Magna-Tiles, colorful magnetic blocks. The family speaks limited Spanish but used Google translate and body language to communicate. Two weeks after her arrival to their home, the girl not only cracked a smile but joked around with his wife.
The day she left, the girl who barely uttered a word when she arrived, hugged Umphlett and his wife.
Still, it wasn’t a tearful goodbye.
“We go into this with the mindset that the goal is to get you to your parent or family member as soon as possible,” he said. “So it’s a happy moment.”
Amy Taxin in Orange County contributed to this report.