Area Schools Scramble to Meet the Emotional Needs of Undocumented Children

Pamela Constable, Washington Post, September 7, 2014

All summer, Central American children caught at the U.S.-Mexico border have been trickling into the Washington area, sent to live with relatives in Latino communities. Now, they are descending en masse on the region’s public schools, bringing an array of problems that school officials are scrambling to address.

Ripped from distant worlds, most of the new students speak no English, and some are psychologically scarred from abuse by gangs or smugglers. Reunited with parents or other relatives they barely know, and still grieving for family and friends back home, they may feel depressed and resentful.

“Some of these kids arrive feeling very angry,” said Rina Chavez, a counselor with the Montgomery County schools. “After years of living with their grandparents, suddenly here they are with mom and a new stepdad and two younger siblings. Then they are expected in a heartbeat to sit down and learn, but they may not be ready.

“At first, some even refuse to learn English.”

Of the roughly 37,000 border children released to parents or other sponsors since January, the Washington area has absorbed one of the largest contingents in the nation. Fairfax County has received 1,023, followed by Prince George’s County with 960 and Montgomery County with 816. Only Los Angeles, Miami, two New York counties and one in Texas have received more, according to federal statistics. All of the children will face eventual hearings on their immigration status.

Because all three regional school systems already serve large numbers of Spanish-speaking students, the schools are equipped to handle some of the newcomers’ needs, such as testing for English skills and academic placement. Also in place are outreach programs to encourage immigrant parents to participate in school activities and to help them sort out conflicts after long family separations.

“We have been integrating these kids into the system for years,” said Chrisandra Richardson, who oversees student services for Montgomery schools. Last year, the system had 19,000 students for whom English was not a first language, and the border surge has added about 800 more. “It’s not a drop in the bucket,” she said, “but it’s what we do.”

John Torre, a Fairfax schools spokesman, said non-native English speakers were already the fastest-growing segment of students, with more than 6,000 enrolled since 2011. “This is not a new phenomenon for us,” he said.

Yet even for schools used to integrating Hispanic immigrants, the unusually large number of those enrolling at once–many with social and emotional needs–is straining the system’s capacity for counseling and mental-health therapy.

Officials at Mary’s Center, a nonprofit health agency that provides 12 schools in the District and Maryland with mental-health therapists, said they have been swamped in the past two weeks with school referrals.

“What’s different is the sheer volume. There’s been a huge influx of kids with a plethora of issues,” said Kara Lowinger, who directs the center’s therapy program.

“They come with a tremendous amount of trauma, and they feel like they’re living with strangers.”


Chavez said she had heard numerous stories about violent drug gangs kidnapping children and their smugglers as they made their way across Mexico. Several counselors said some teenage girls had been sexually assaulted en route or had previously been abused by relatives.


Diana Sosa, a school social worker in Herndon, said Fairfax schools have established mentoring programs and ties with a network of ­churches, businesses and social agencies to supplement staff services for immigrant children who need emotional or psychological support.

But she also noted that local Latino gangs often prey on new students who seem lonely or alienated–much as they would do in Central America.

“These kids have so much on their minds. It makes them very vulnerable,” Sosa said. “We try to find them support and mentors. If they don’t get assimilated and learn English and begin feeling like they belong, they are much more apt to be recruited.”


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