The Caminos Nacional Story: Partnering to Serve Unaccompanied Children
An Interview with Kelly Berger, LCSW-C, Vice President of Special Operations, Board of Child Care
The subject of unaccompanied minors has been in the news a great deal over the past few years, but Board of Child Care has been serving this youth for some time. Tell us about your work and how you came to the idea to partner with other agencies?
Board of Child Care began working with UC’s during a period of influx in 2014 – an influx not unlike what we have seen these past several months. At that time, our decision to serve these youth was based on our confidence that as child welfare professionals, we would be able to ensure that this vulnerable population and their families were provided with safe, high quality, supportive care, and services. Over the years, BCC grew our Caminos shelter program, expanding locations from Maryland, into West Virginia and Pennsylvania and also added a foster care component. Throughout our expansion, we realized how critical the need was for child welfare professionals to be doing this work. The youth entering the Caminos Program are separated from their families, have histories of traumatic exposure and are seeking safety – who better to serve these youth, and reconnect them with families, than child welfare professionals that have been doing this work for decades? In our opinion, there is no one better suited to serve this population than child welfare professionals… And that is what sparked the idea for Caminos Nacional.
Why did Board of Child Care decide that it wanted to partner with UMA members on Caminos Nacional?
As we considered how we might bring more child welfare providers into this work, we thought it would be beneficial to create an environment that we could share our expertise and lessons learned (and there are many) since opening in 2014. Early on, one of the concepts that we kept coming back to was bringing on partner organizations as subgrantees – where BCC would provide support, training and assistance as well as oversight to partner organizations interested in doing this work. This idea of having subgrantees was new to BCC. With relationships being one of our core values, we knew that having strong relationships with our partners would be critical to cultivate trust, establish transparency and build a sustainable program model. For BCC, another critical element was to ensure that the services provided were aligned with our philosophy of care.
Once we knew what we were looking for, it seemed natural to look to our UMA, EAGLE accredited network to seek partners in our work. We have established formal relationships with Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, IL and Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Enterprise, FL, both of which have now accepted Caminos youth on their campuses. Building upon a shared foundation of similar values, we were confident that these partners will provide holistic, trauma informed care to the youth and families. It was our shared connection of UMA and EAGLE that allowed BCC to cultivate a strong and resilient relationship with our Caminos Nacional partners. The strength of that relationship has been a critical component to our success, as we have been able to both share success and tackle some sensitive and challenging conversations, knowing we are all working together to build a program that is both successful and has lasting positive impacts.
You describe serving this group as “impactful.” What is uniquely challenging and rewarding about serving this group?
The environmental context in which the Caminos Program functions is very different than our other service lines. Being part of a national network of providers, there times that things that happen on the other side of the country that impact our daily operations. The national narrative that surrounds this work can be misleading and depending on the ebb and flow of the media attention, has the potential to directly influence the environment that our youth and staff are working in. A unique challenge that we have as providers is finding opportunities to change the narrative in a way that promotes facts about the program, and amplifies the amazing work that providers are doing to connect youth with their families.
The rewards of doing this work far outweigh the challenges. The Caminos Program is just one stop along the long journey that these youth travel, but during their time with us, we are given the opportunity to set the stage for the next leg in that journey. In what is sometimes a very brief stay, we are given the privilege of welcoming the youth to our country, providing them with a sense of safety and reassurance while we begin to teach them all about what life in the U.S. will be like. At the same time, we are given the gift of unifying these young people with family members who they have not seen in many years – often times, with mothers and fathers who left their home countries when the youth were very young. Bringing families together in a way that promotes healing and positive connection is at the heart of the Caminos Program – and is one of the ways that BCC meets its purpose of enriching communities, one family at a time.
In May, two UMA, EAGLE-accredited agencies received their first youth. Can you share any details about their experiences?
We were beyond excited for the two Caminos Nacional programs to begin serving youth. So much hard work and anticipation led up to the arrival of those first groups. I can still remember the moment our first group arrived to BCC in 2014, so I was probably as excited as the teams at each facility! From our perspective on the BCC side, we were confident they were ready – the teams are both amazingly talented and dedicated. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into preparing for the opening of a program, and these teams were prepared to welcome the youth into their agencies in a warm and inviting manner. Personally, it was such a pleasure hearing from each program what the first few days were like for them – hearing about how the youth arrived very unsure of what to expect, but in time, began to realize that they were safe in these programs, and that they would have all of their needs met. Simple acknowledgements, like gratitude for wonderful meals, a comfortable bed and new, clean clothing are often unnoticed but for some of these youth, this was the first time they have slept in a bed in weeks or months. The positive impact of this work cannot be overstated – every youth deserves a safe place, where they can take a deep breath and close their eyes, knowing that nothing bad will happen to them.
Can you tell us more about the kids you serve?
Almost all of the youth coming into the program have just recently entered the U.S. and are placed into the Caminos Program after being processed at the southern U.S. border. Every youth entering the program has a unique story. Although the majority are from Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), not all of them are – in fact, youth served in this program can come from anywhere in the world. As they get settled into the program, the youth share their stories with the program staff. Youth report coming to the U.S. because they fear for their safety. Many of the youth report receiving threats and witnessing violence in their communities. In addition to the fear they experience, the youth report not being able to find work or attend school – there is little opportunity for these young people to find a way out of severe poverty, and the few opportunities that used to exist have been eliminated by a combination of environmental catastrophes and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The journey the youth take to get to the U.S. is dangerous. Youth sometimes travel weeks and may be dependent upon coyotes to guide them. The youth have no personal belongings other than the clothes on their backs. The youth, and their families, often tell us that they chose to make the dangerous journey in order to survive. For some of them, being able to come to the U.S. to attend school and pursue their immigration case is their only hope at a better life. This hope, and the faith that something better awaits, is often what keeps the going through that difficult and dangerous journey.
These past few months clearly demonstrate that there is an enormous need for child welfare providers to open their organizations and consider serving Unaccompanied Children. BCC is currently exploring expansion opportunities for Caminos Nacional so that we can continue to grow our network of licensed, UMA, EAGLE – accredited agencies committed to providing high quality, trauma informed care to this incredible group of young people. One thing that we are often asked is how an organization might consider this opportunity, while continuing to serve the youth and families in their local community. Our answer is simple – adding the Caminos Program to your organization will enrich and deepen the good work already being done. Each Caminos Program location currently in operation exists on a campus shared with programs serving domestic youth and families. In our experience, adding Caminos to our continuum of programs provided an incredible platform for learning and growth, conversations around equity and diversity, and building opportunities for all youth and staff to demonstrate empathy and compassion. If you are interested in learning more about Caminos Nacional, please contact Laurie Anne Spagnola at firstname.lastname@example.org.