We still don't know where many of the thousands of children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico are living, or what will happen to them now that President Trump has signed an executive order that he says will bring an end to the family separation policy. But in the last few hours, it's become clear that at least 239 of these children were sent to the New York area without their parents. They are believed to be staying at some of the eleven local foster agencies that collect more than $100 million from the federal government to house immigrant youth.

On Wednesday, two leaders of those organizations spoke with Gothamist, on the condition of anonymity because contractees are prohibited from talking to press. Both sources stressed that the foster services were working toward the children's best interests, and that they were aghast at the federal government’s decision to take children from their parents.

The system they describe begins within 72 hours of ICE separating a family, at which point the unaccompanied children are legally required to be transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The federal agency then places the kids with one of the contracted foster groups—in some cases, thousands of miles away from their detained parents, who may have no way of contacting them and no connection to the region.

"In theory, you would think that the government would be sending kids to New York who might have a sponsor in the northeast, but that's not always how it works," one source told Gothamist. "There doesn't seem to be a method for this. We get a phone call from ORR and they say, 'Hey, we're arriving at JFK. We have three kids with us.'"

The children in the agency's care who've been separated from their parents under the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy are between the ages of 6 and 17, that source said. Most of their parents are detained near the U.S.-Mexico border, and one of the organization's first priorities is figuring out which detention center they're in, so the kids can speak to them by phone. So far, they've had only "a tiny bit of success" in finding numbers for the young children to call.

The next step is locating relatives of the children who are willing to take them in. When that's not possible, the services will attempt to connect the kids with a foster family—"a much longer term process." In the past year, "the average length of stay has increased,” one employee told Gothamist, “because it's harder to find sponsors, because they fear deportation.”

Throughout the conversations, both service workers repeatedly emphasized that their contracts were not an endorsement of the Trump administration's immigration tactics.

"We do think about whether we’re complicit in the federal government’s policy, but on the other hand this is child welfare we’re talking about,” one source said. “It’s kids who’ve been traumatized by war, who may not know the language, so what else can we do except provide them with as much as we can?”

"We are the people who know how to care for these children,” another source added. “We're trying to do that in the way that we know how.”


On Wednesday, reports identifying the facilities where some of the minors are living sparked calls for protest, and heads of several organizations confirmed that they received threats. Some also worry that the ongoing media frenzy could further traumatize the children. Edward Hayes, the president and CEO of Cayuga Home For Children, told Gothamist that children at his facility were “suffering more because reporters are chasing them with cameras, which look a lot like gangs with guns in El Salvador.”

Critics of the contract arrangement, meanwhile, say that the services deserve scrutiny, and point to past reports of abuse at immigrant youth shelters, including Children's Village. In 2013, an unaccompanied Guatemalan boy caught crossing the border was transferred to that facility, and was soon sexually assaulted by one of the other boys, according to his mother. Children’s Village maintains a $6.9 million contract with the government to house unaccompanied minors.

While both foster care leaders who spoke with Gothamist acknowledged that concerns for the children were warranted, they emphasized that maintaining the contract with the government was the best way to ensure the safety of the children.

"We're not the enemy here," a source said. "We're not the ones ripping the children away from their parents."