As the one-year anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan has come and gone, about 100 Afghan youth remain in United States government custody without their parents—the majority of whom are placed in shelters and other congregate care settings. This number reflects both great progress in releasing hundreds of Afghan youth to sponsors over the past year and significant issues that plague the system serving unaccompanied minors.
Afghan children fled to the U.S. hoping to find security and freedom after unexpectedly having to leave their lives and families behind. But for too many of these children, one unimaginable trauma was replaced with another: After escaping the brutal Taliban regime, Afghan youth who have yet to be reunited with family have languished for months in highly regimented settings ill-suited to meet the needs of children with complex trauma.
As attorneys representing children in federal immigration custody, we have traveled around the country over the past year, interviewing detained Afghan youth and hearing first-hand about their experiences in U.S. custody since the fall of Kabul. One young man shared his harrowing journey from Kabul to Qatar to Michigan to New York; his fears that he and his Afghan “brothers” were being forgotten and that no one was working on their cases; his sadness that he could not speak to his family in Afghanistan more often; his frustration over not being able to go to a real school or be part of American life; and his feelings of complete isolation as he and the other Afghan youth often spent 23 hours a day in the same building, apparently due to rigid rules, staff shortages, and the cold New York winter.
These stories are absolutely devastating, but for us, all too familiar. Children in federal immigration custody face a restrictive care system that all too often fails to meet the needs of children that do not have family to whom they can be released.
As we have spoken with Afghan youth, we have consistently heard them describe regimented settings where children cannot leave the facility except for limited field trips, move around on their own or even visit other children’s rooms, hug one another, take a walk outside alone to get some fresh air, or possess a cell phone or other technology to be in touch with family and friends. One 17-year-old Afghan girl noted that “we feel like prisoners because they don’t let us take even one step outside our trajectory. We, girls, are quiet and try to obey the rules, but we need some room to breathe.”
Most children live with constant anxiety about the safety of their families in Afghanistan but face strict limits on how often they can speak with their families—often just two 10-minute phone calls per week. One 16-year-old Afghan boy said he participated in a hunger strike to secure more phone time, explaining “We were really struggling mentally with how little we were able to talk to our families. It really helps our mental health to be able to speak to our families and make sure that they are okay.”
Children’s hopes of continuing their education in the U.S. have also been frustrated. Classes that are provided are geared toward children with brief stays rather than an entire school year. Children with longer stays generally do not receive transferrable school credits and often find the curriculum repetitive and basic. One 13-year-old Afghan boy expressed his deep desire to learn English and said, “I also want to be exposed to the outside world to learn about how to live outside this place. I came to the United States in hopes of making my life better, but I feel like I have wasted so much time here, and it is time for me to go to real school.”
Unsurprisingly, prolonged stays in government custody and separation from their families has led many Afghan children to experience deteriorating mental health. Multiple children have been transferred to more restrictive psychiatric facilities, allegedly because their mental health needs could not be met in the shelter setting. Children’s frustration and trauma can also manifest in what staff considers aggressive or defiant behavior, often leading to punitive action rather than solutions that address the root cause of distress. One 17-year-old Afghan boy told us, “I am worried they will keep me here until I go crazy and then they will send me to a mental institution.”
Afghan children and other youth in government custody who don’t have family in the U.S. desperately need placements in home-like settings through the ORR Long-Term Foster Care and the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) programs. As another Afghan girl who hopes to become a women’s rights lawyer expressed, “I just want to live with real people with real lives and go to school.” Yet neither foster care program has sufficient available placements to accommodate the number of eligible children, leaving children to remain on opaque waitlists for months on end, with no updates on if or when they will be placed. Perversely, in our experience, the children with the highest levels of trauma who are struggling the most in institutional care are the least likely to secure one of the limited URM or Long-Term Foster Care spots.
We can and must do better for vulnerable children who arrive without family supports. It serves nobody’s interest for children to deteriorate in shelters for months at government expense when they could be living with families, attending school, and building new futures in the community. The federal government must act now to significantly invest in Long-Term Foster Care, URM placements, and therapeutic family foster care. The failure to do so will mean children will continue to unnecessarily suffer in government custody when they could be living with families in the community.
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