Foster Parents of Girl Taken at the Border Struggled to Comfort Her

Jun 21, 2018

Stuffed toy animals wrapped in aluminum foil representing migrant children separated from their families are displayed in protest in front of the United States embassy in Guatemala City, Guatemala, Wednesday, June 20, 2018.
Credit Luis Soto / AP Photo

Chris Burns of Portage found out earlier than most that children were being taken away from their parents at the border. That’s because Burns and his wife were asked to foster one of those children last fall.

On Wednesday, after a massive public outcry, President Trump said the separations would end.

Chris Burns, who also serves on the Portage City Council, joins us to talk about the three-year-old girl he cared for while she was apart from her family (she turned four during her stay). Burns says when he and his wife met the girl, she was visibly distressed.

“It’s a pretty harrowing experience. She had just been taken from the border where she had been separated forcibly from her father, and flown overnight. So when we met her in the offices of Bethany Christian Services in Paw Paw, it was four a.m., she was exhausted, confused and really distraught,” he said.

Interview with Chris Burns

Sehvilla Mann: When you say “distraught,” you mean crying?

Chris Burns: Yeah, crying, not communicating, you know sort of huddled into a little ball.

SM: Where was she coming from? How did she end up at the border with her dad?

CB: Her family was from Guatemala, and they left and arrived at the border after a long journey through Mexico.

SM: You meet her in Paw Paw in the wee hours of the morning, she’s pretty upset at that time…how did things unfold in the coming weeks?

CB: It took probably the course of about four weeks where she was not communicating, very upset, she would cry throughout the night for her brother and her father and our job as foster parents is sort of to give her safe space and make her feel welcome and comforted, and we did the best that we could and it just took a long time for her to become more comfortable with us. You have to remember that she does not know where her father is, or when they may be reunited or who we are as foster parents.

SM: What was it like for you? You have this distraught child, you’re trying to do your best by her but isn’t that kind of an impossible situation?

CB: It felt that way. My wife and I had a conversation where we said we felt like we were, we felt like kidnappers even though we were doing everything we could for her, and we cared for her and were trying to be comforting, there really is no difference between someone who has the child in our circumstances and someone who forcibly removed them from their parents themselves. So it’s a real challenge and we did the very best we could.

Over those six months she became more comfortable and we were able to make contact with her parents which helped a great deal in calming her down and helping her to understand her situation.

SM: How long was it before she was able to talk to her parents?

CB: It was around six weeks before we made contact with her father, and I think around four weeks before we made contact with her mother who was back in Guatemala.

Portage City Council member Chris Burns and his wife fostered a young girl from Guatemala for about six months, after she was taken from her father at the border.
Credit Sehvilla Mann / WMUK

SM: Did you know at the time that her removal was part of this policy of taking children away from their parents at the border that would of course snowball into the explosive news that we’ve seen in the last few weeks?

CB: We didn’t at the time. As I understand the refugee foster program, it was originally designed to deal with unaccompanied minors who were arriving at the border, not folks who were arriving with a parent. And so it wasn’t until later on, after she was in our care that we realized she had been forcibly separated from a parent.

SM: What was it like being part of that?

CB: I’ll admit that we feel really conflicted about it. These children, in our view receive the best care when they’re with their parents. They belong with their parents and we disagree with the policy of family separation.

But at the same time, we feel like having a safe place where children can receive one-on-one attention and can receive the support services that they have access to through Bethany Christian Services like therapists, it is really helpful for a child’s development and I think is an improvement over the group shelters that I’ve seen in the news recently.

SM: How did your time with her come to an end?

CB: Her dad who she was separated from had been deported after about two months, and so we knew after about two months that the ultimate her case was going to be that she was going to get voluntary departure to go back to Guatemala.

But nevertheless she had her own immigration case that went through the courts and it wound up taking an additional four months, so she was in our care for six months for her to ultimately get on a plane in Grand Rapids with ICE agents who escorted her back to Guatemala.

SM: What was your reaction to President Trump’s announcement on Wednesday that the administration will end this policy of child separations?

CB: We agree that family separations should end and that children should stay with their parents but we remained really concerned about the safety of the children who have already been separated, and also about the safety and care for children who may wind up detained with their parents as a result of this new order combined with the zero-tolerance immigration policy.

What strikes us is that these children aren’t making these choices for themselves and they deserve to be treated in a safe and humane way in our estimation.