A year ago, the federal government quietly sent hundreds of migrant children to New York foster agencies and shelters after they’d been separated from their parents at the Southern U.S. border. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio were both frustrated when they couldn’t get the New York agencies or the federal government to disclose how many of these children were in their custody.
Now, an effort in Albany to require more transparency around children separated from their parents appears to be stalled.
The Separation of Children Accountability Reporting Act, or SCAR, was sponsored by Manhattan Assemblyman Harvey Epstein. He said this bill would require foster agencies with federal contracts to tell the state how many of the unaccompanied migrant kids in their care were separated from their parents by the government.
“The only way to help children is to know that they’re here, and then to know that we can provide services,” he said.
Epstein said children who were taken from their parents at the border might have very different mental health needs than other unaccompanied minors who came on their own, and didn’t endure the added trauma of separation.
A Senate version of the SCAR act passed this year. But Epstein’s bill stalled out in the Assembly.
Queens Assemblyman Andy Hevesi worries requiring agencies with federal contracts to disclose how many kids were separated from their families could cause a problem. He said they're barred from reporting that specific information to the state for a reason.
“They could lose their federal contracts,” he explained.
“Then these kids, instead of coming to our foster care agencies that are the best in the state and provide great services under difficult circumstances, then those kids are more likely to be detained in more restrictive facilities.”
Facilities like giant shelters at the Southwest border, he said, “where kids are left in cold rooms and there’s cages and all kinds of other things.”
Hevesi has sponsored the Child Trauma Bill, which would ensure that all migrant children, including those separated from parents, get free healthcare and mental health services after they're released from federally contracted shelters in New York to relatives in the state. Unaccompanied minors typically spend a few months in government-contracted shelters before being released to sponsors, because of extensive background checks. While in federal custody, they’re entitled to education, healthcare and counseling, though the government recently ordered cutbacks to those services.
Advocates who were outraged by the separation of children last year support Hevesi’s bill, but they don’t understand why both bills can’t pass. The Zero Tolerance policy that led to child separations last year is officially over, but thousands of other children were taken from parents and the government said it could be years before they’re all reunited.
“Still we have the federal government losing children and not knowing, and being totally un-transparent about a child’s status,” said Peter Cook, Executive Director of the New York State Council of Churches. “Nothing has changed.”
Cook noted that the version of the SCAR act that passed the Senate was amended to address the concerns of foster agencies. Data on separated children would only be collected once a year instead of more frequently. No identifying information would be included about the children, except for the countries they came from, and the agencies would also have to note whether kids were reunited with parents.
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Rev. Chloe Breyer, Executive Director of the Interfaith Center of New York, said she joined protests in East Harlem last year near Cayuga Centers, which took hundreds of separated children. She supports the SCAR act to hold the federal government accountable.
“There needed to be more transparency between those state providers who were licensed by the state but were not allowed to give information to the state,” she said.
The Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which represents most of the providers with federal contracts in New York, declined to discuss the SCAR Act and its reporting requirements. But Mary Jane Dessables, the group’s director of information, research and accountability, said it supports Hevesi’s bill to provide additional support for the children upon their release from foster care.
“In particular the legal services that are in the bill are probably the most important,” she said, by email. “While there are organizations working hard to provide legal services to support these young people and their sponsors, the reality is that there is not enough access to legal services to meet the need and this bill aims to expand access.”
Dessables also said the bill would include trauma-informed counseling sessions with social workers to help all unaccompanied minors who endured the long and challenging journey across the border.
Hevesi said he supports greater transparency but he doesn’t see how it could make a difference.
“If the reporting act, the goal is eventually try to get these kids back with their parents, that’s something I’m 100 percent for,” he explained. “I just don’t think a report to the governor and the legislature about how many there are does that.”
With time running out before the end of the legislative session on June 19th, he said lawmakers are now focused on figuring out how much the services in his bill would cost for all migrant kids who remain in New York, instead of determining which ones were separated.
Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.