ROCKVILLE, Md. -- While the national debate over what to do about illegal immigration simmers, state and local agencies try to deal with the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border into the U.S.
On Monday, Ted Dallas, Maryland's secretary of human service, and Anne Sheridan, the executive director of the Governor's Office for Children, detailed the latest efforts at the state level to tackle the influx of children and teens coming to Maryland. The meeting included discussions on streamlining the legal process as immigrants from Central America look to the courts for help in gaining refugee or asylum status.
But while all that goes on, more than 2,200 children and teens who have made it to Maryland and have reunited with families are trying to adjust to their new settings. Families are enrolling children in area schools and trying to access health care and deal with trauma their children may have experienced along the way. That's where the Tree House comes in.
The Tree House Child Assessment Center treats children who have been physically or sexually abused. Therapist Jeanine Lamb says about 20 percent of the children she's treating there are unaccompanied minors who had been traumatized on the journey from their home countries into the United States.
"I've had kids as young as five; I think the oldest was 13," Lamb says. Asked how a five-year-old could possibly have made it from Central America to Maryland on their own, Lamb explains kids that young typically travel with siblings. The five-year-old, Lamb says, traveled under the care of her older sister -- who was seven. "The seven-year-old was kind of in charge. And they'd make friends with an 11-year-old or a 13-year-old to kind of guide them."
In some cases, they would find protectors. Lamb says one of the girls she treated was raped, and two older children who were making the trip into the United States stopped the attack. Lamb says they made it their business to look after her and the other girls in their particular group. Others are not so lucky: "I had one case of an older youth who abused an 8-year-old."
Lamb says more than 90 percent of the children she sees have reunited with family in Maryland. Her therapy sessions often include the entire family because parents suffer, too. "What I see is a lot of guilt and sadness, and the parents feeling they're culpable for what this other minor or adult has done to their children." Lamb says that when the entire family can work through what they've endured, progress and healing can begin.
One of the exercises Lamb does with the children is to ask them what they would wish for if they could have three wishes. The first thing they often ask for is "that bad things wouldn't happen to people." The second wish generally is that the family can always stay together. At that point, Lamb says she'll ask, "But what about just something for you?" That's when the kids start sounding like any other kid: dreaming of all the art supplies they could get, wanting to go to a horseback riding camp or getting a season's pass to an amusement park.
Despite the trauma they've undergone, Lamb says the children report that their faith —- and the thought of being reunited with family -- kept them going. And now that they're here, the thought that they have real opportunities keeps them optimistic.
The Tree House Child Assessment Center of Maryland, in Rockville, provides services as a non-profit. If you want to help children who've been abused, you can find ways you can assist by going to Tree House Child Assessment Center's website.
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