Resettlement agency struggles to find foster families for young refugees

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Bethany Children's Services is one of the agencies struggling to find foster families for older refugees.

Clarification: Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas both wait to accept young refugees until they have a home set up for them. This story has been updated to clarify the agencies act the same in this regard. 

Detroit — A resettlement agency is sounding the alarm because of a decline of eligible foster families for minors who are refugees from other countries.

Bethany Christian Services, which began providing refugee services to southeast Michigan in 2016, is struggling to find families to take them in, even as arrivals increase.

Starr Allen-Pettway, Bethany branch director in Detroit, said more families are interested in offering foster care for younger children instead of teens who have been through trauma. 

"One of the greatest struggles that we have found in southeast Michigan is finding homes to take older children," she said. "We get many calls weekly of families that are interested in supporting refugee youth, but many of the families that are interested are typically interested in very young children, 5 and younger."

In this Wednesday, May 22, 2019 photo, migrants mainly from Central America guide their children through the entrance of a World War II-era bomber hanger in Deming, N.M.

Refugee children have come primarily from Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Ivory Coast and Central African Republic.

In 2018, the agency received 51 referrals and accepted 23. So far this year, the agency already has received 90 referrals and accepted 30.

Allen-Pettway said while the number of referrals has risen dramatically in 2019, the numbers they allocate for have been reduced because they have no homes in which to place them.

Many of the kids have spent months fleeing extreme conditions and have lived in chaotic environments, where educational opportunities weren't available.

"We typically see children that are fleeing things like trafficking, violence and extreme poverty," Allen-Pettway said. "Some children that are in war-torn countries have observed their families killed in front of them, have no adult supports and do what they can to seek asylum. 

"Some children, like those from Congo, have faced armed conflict and inter-communal violence their entire lives that has pushed millions of people into vulnerability, food insecurity, malnutrition and the multitude of epidemic outbreaks," she said.

They are between 13-23 years old, although most are at least 15 and have lived in refugee camps for many years.

"Because of the length of time the children spend in refugee camps and the time it takes to process their status and get them to the U.S., we receive many urgent referrals for youths who will be turning 18 in a matter of weeks," Allen-Pettway said.

According to the 2018 Global Trends in Forced Displacement report, released Wednesday by the United Nations, children made up about 50% of the world's refugee population, up from 41% in 2009. More than 111,000 unaccompanied and separated child refugees were reported in 2018.

► More: Bethany teams up with Airbnb for refugee housing in Michigan

► More: Michigan becomes haven for Congo refugees

Other placement agencies in Michigan, including Samaritas, face many of the same obstacles, and both wait to bring children over until they have a home set up for them.

Michelle Haskell, Samaritas outreach team lead for refugee services, said families often fear taking older youth because they think it will be more difficult.

"Our domestic programs also have the same issue, we just have a different level to that not just because we have a lack of families, but because we have youth that people find intimidating," Haskell said. "Of course, the language barrier with older youth can be even more intimidating."

One family's experience

Bethany releases few details about specific placements, including the names of those involved, to protect the privacy of foster parents and children.

But one foster parent who worked through Bethany told The News that when she decided to open her home to a refugee, she wanted a teenage girl to join her four birth-children. 

When a teenage girl arrived from Congo in December 2017 with two young boys — one 4 months old and the other under age 2 — the foster mom said she agreed to take all of them in.

"When we got the call the day after Christmas, we didn't know anything about our foster daughter, but when we saw them together, we knew it answered a prayer in our lives," the woman said. "There's a lot of rhetoric in our country. Many of us aren't as kind to share the love with immigrants and refugees as God has called us to be in the Bible, that's why we became their fosters."

She said there were some challenges with education and language barriers, but not as overwhelming as some may think.

"We believe they have been more of a blessing for our family than we are for them," she said. "For my children, it's like she's been their sister their whole lives."

Afghan refugees who fled their homeland due to war and famine, are on their way to collect clean water in slums of Lahore, Pakistan, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Pakistan will also observe the World Refugee Day tomorrow with other countries, launched by the UN Refugee Agency, and held every year on June 20th, aims to honors the courage of people who are forced to flee their homeland.

Becoming a foster parent

In honor of World Refugee Day, Bethany Christian Services is hosting an event for eligible families to meet six refugee minors. The event is 6-8 p.m. Thursday at their offices at 30685 Barrington St., Madison Heights.

Two of the children are siblings arriving from Eritrea, ages 15 and 17. The other four are between the ages of 17-19 from Congo and Eritrea.

Families interested in learning more about refugee foster care can attend and sign up for orientation to receive their license. Information is available at The phone number is (248) 414-4080.

Foster parents receive a monthly, tax-free stipend that covers expenses like food, clothing and school supplies. Foster children receive Medicaid. Bethany did not disclose the amount of the stipend.

There are additional out-of-pocket costs, and Bethany recommends foster parents seek community resources and family support.

Foster parents can be single or married. Many are already raising children and some have never parented before. 

The Michigan foster mother said people shouldn't be intimidated by taking in an older child.

"The part of this program that's so appealing is that these minors have asked to be placed. It's not a traditional foster care organization where kids may be going through different emotions," she said. "These kids are looking for placement and want to be safe in your family."

Allen-Pettway said while they know they cannot help every child, they try to find as many families to keep on their list.

"As a mother, I could not imagine my children having to flee everything that they know for their own safety," she said. "With that in mind, I don’t want any child to have to walk this journey alone, and that is the motivation behind the work. Doing all that we can to ensure that children, no matter where they come from, have an opportunity at life."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_