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Propublica investigation details hardships experienced by Afghan minors in Michigan facilities

Evacuees board a transport shuttle to the first outbound flight after a three-week pause to the United States from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Oct. 9, 2021.
Amn Jared Lovett
/
DVIDS
A majority of unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan were placed with relatives or family friends, but about 200 teenage boys have spent months in federal custody.

When the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan last summer, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees resettled in America.

Some of them were children who came here without their families and were placed in federal custody, stuck for months without proper mental health support or resources to acclimate to America.

Anna Clark and Melissa Sanchez with Propublica investigated how these children have been treated in some facilities based in Michigan. WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Clark about the story.

Interview Highlights

On what happened when these children arrived in the U.S.

The federal government and the shelters that it works with across the country, including here in Michigan, were really kind of caught off guard in trying to swiftly adapt to meet the needs of 1,400 unaccompanied minors, children and teens from Afghanistan, folks who came here without their families. And so, especially at the beginning, there was you know, trouble getting interpreters, for example, making adjustments to their food needs, religion needs, cultural needs, the very particular kind of trauma they went through.

On what's happened to these refugees in the months they've spent in federal custody

The one thing we noticed, as we were looking at these records, as we're hearing from folks who worked with these kids, is that the longer they stayed, the more a lot of these kids were acting out, which is truly what you would expect, you know, given what they're going through there. For many of them, their depression is, like, accelerating, their anger, their pain. Many of them have hurt themselves and others.

On what's next for her coverage of this story

I can just say that, like, even though the story came out, Melissa and I are both very interested in what becomes of these children who are still waiting for either foster placements or ultimately to be reunited with a family member. And I think that's, you know, worth remembering is the ultimate goal.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: When the U.S. military pulled out of Afghanistan last summer, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees came here and resettled in the country.

Some of them were children who came here without their families and were placed in federal custody, stuck for months without proper mental health support or resources to acclimate to America.

Anna Clark with Propublica investigated how these children have been treated in some facilities based in Michigan. She joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Anna Clark: Thank you so much for having me.

Saliby: From the get-go, it seems like plans to care for these children never really came together. Can you explain what happened when they first arrived in the U.S.?

Clark: Well, as I'm sure your listeners remember, it was a really haphazard, chaotic, very troubling and unsettling evacuation, right?

The federal government and the shelters that it works with across the country, including here in Michigan, were really kind of caught off guard in trying to swiftly adapt to meet the needs of 1,400 unaccompanied minors.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the federal government and the shelters that it works with across the country, including here in Michigan, were really kind of caught off guard in trying to swiftly adapt to meet the needs of 1,400 unaccompanied minors, children and teens from Afghanistan, folks who came here without their families.

And so, especially at the beginning, there was you know, trouble getting interpreters, for example, making adjustments to their food needs, religion needs, cultural needs, the very particular kind of trauma they went through.

Our shelters have mostly been working with Central American youth, you know, who are here for short stays. Most of the staff speaks Spanish. It was like this really abrupt turnaround.

Saliby: Your reporting focused on these two Michigan facilities. Can you talk about some of the alleged abuses that have happened at both Samaritas in Grand Rapids and Starr Commonwealth in Albion?

Clark: Sure, well, Starr Commonwealth was one of the first places a lot of these kids were sent. So, they had a large number of people who pass through there in Albion, Michigan. And that facility ended up closing in early January, and the kids were scattered over to a number of different other facilities, including Samaritas.

The one thing we noticed, as we were looking at these records, as we're hearing from folks who worked with these kids, is that the longer they stayed, the more a lot of these kids were acting out, which is truly what you would expect, you know, given what they're going through there.

For many of them, their depression is, like, accelerating, their anger, their pain. Many of them have hurt themselves and others.

For many of them, their depression is, like, accelerating, their anger, their pain. You know, many of them have hurt themselves and others. There's folks who have, you know, expressed real, like, even like suicidal ideations. There's been, you know, concerns that some of the adults in the facility and some of the kids with each other, like, just hurting each other, just adding to this painful scenario.

So, we know that there were a few different incidents that led to either a sheriff's office or the state, you know, investigating at both facilities.

Saliby: That's what I was going to ask next. The state has been looking into what's been happening at these sites. What's the status of that, and has there been any federal response?

Clark: Well, one thing that's interesting is that with Starr, the state says it has no jurisdiction because it was an unlicensed facility. It was sort of set up as an emergency intake site. And one of the critiques of this model, in general, you know, historically, has been that there's not independent check, that they don't go through the state licensing process, like other facilities. So, in that case, the state isn't involved at all.

It was directly with like local law enforcement and the federal agency that supervises these sites, as we understand it, like there's nothing that's like active there. Mainly because like, in some cases, the prosecutor's office, like, you know, kind of closed the case, because like, you know, they didn't feel like there, it was actually an incident worth pursuing or because they couldn't find the people because in January, everybody moved on. You know, the kids were transferred. The place is kind of on pause right now.

At Samaritas, that was a licensed facility. As mandatory reporters, like there's a particular incident that did lead the facility to, this involving a staff member, that reported to the state and, of course, you know, given the kind of concerns like they neither the state nor the facility can give details on it, but we understand that it is just still active, still pending. They're still looking into it and seeing what's what's going on or not going on.

Saliby: So, the Albion site has shut down. I've seen from your reporting that most of these refugees have been transferred away from the Grand Rapids site. Do we know where these kids are now?

Melissa and I are both very interested in what what becomes of these children who are still waiting for either foster placements or ultimately to be reunited with a family member.

Clark: They're transferred to several different facilities. I remember hearing from one person at the Samaritas site that some of them might be in Jackson, Michigan. Others have been transferred to facilities, like, around the country.

And it's also worth mentioning that Bethany Christian in Michigan has also, I mean, we didn't focus on it for this particular story, but they've also had supervision over unaccompanied minors.

I can just say that, like, even though the story came out, Melissa and I are both very interested in what becomes of these children who are still waiting for either foster placements or ultimately to be reunited with a family member. And I think that's, you know, worth remembering is the ultimate goal.

Saliby: Anna Clark is a reporter for ProPublica. You can find more of her reporting on ProPublica's website. Thank you for being here.

Clark: Thank you so much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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