Foster Care Reform Needed To Tackle Crisis of Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Written by Mark Powell, first published in the Times of San Diego

Many of us saw the shocking videos of the two young sisters being dropped over a 14 foot border fence by alleged human smugglers. Immediately after both children landed on the ground the two smugglers fled the area and abandoned the helpless little girls on the north side of the international boundary line.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem like the unaccompanied minor situation at our border is going to end anytime soon and who knows how many more children will be dropped over the border fence. The likelihood of children getting seriously hurt while attempting to cross the border appears to be increasing.

Many unaccompanied minors who cross the border will never be connected to family members, and we cannot house children in the San Diego Convention Center indefinitely. Most likely the children who are not able to reunite with a parent or family member on this side of the border will need to be absorbed into our foster care system. With approximately 2,858 children in foster care in San Diego County, the system is already overwhelmed, so adding more children is going to be challenging.

The Polinsky Children’s Center is a facility for the temporary emergency shelter of children who must be separated from their families for their own safety, or when parents cannot provide care. This temporary shelter often houses children for much longer periods while they wait to be placed in a foster home and the center is almost always at capacity.

Older children who have no relatives may have the hardest time finding placement into a foster home setting and are frequently housed at the Polinsky Center. For these young adults a facility similar to the San Pasqual Academy might be a perfect fit. However, this will only happen if our elected officials take the necessary steps to reform our foster care system.

Members of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to request an extension from the California Department of Social Services to operate the San Pasqual Academy through June 30, 2022. The extension will delay the academy’s closure, but much more will be needed to keep the academy open permanently.

In fact, not only should the academy remain open, we need to open more academies like San Pasqual for situations just like the one currently at our border.

The Board of Supervisors needs to take the lead on re-categorizing the San Pasqual Academy and provide our legislature with a new designation. Working with the San Diego County Office of Education, both agencies could make the appropriately recommendations to categorize the San Pasqual Academy as a boarding school or similar designation and not categorize it as a congregate care facility, because it is not.

The unaccompanied minor situation at our border has taught us that we need to fundamentally reform our foster care system. And in doing so we will also have the opportunity to prevent youth homelessness, because among the populations at greatest risk for becoming homeless are teenagers who age out of foster care.

Teens who become homeless after aging out of foster care experience high rates of mental health disorders, a high risk of physical or sexual victimization, and a lack of access to health care services, the issues that often cause homelessness. And when these foster children term out of the foster care system within 18 months of emancipation 40% to 50% become homeless. Nationally, 50% of the homeless population spent time in foster care.