Catholic Charities explains shift from refugees to children

| June 13, 2018 | 0 Comments

Catholic Charities’ St. Joseph’s Home for Children Emergency Shelter in Minneapolis. Matthew Davis/The Catholic Spirit

Although Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis has resettled refugees since the 1970s, its program became massively unpredictable in the past two years, prompting leaders to announce May 2 their decision to shift the nonprofit’s focus from refugee resettlement to helping children in the Hennepin County child protection system.

“Given what we saw on the horizon in terms of the number of people that were going to come through Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program, we didn’t think that we were going to hit the threshold that the [U.S.] State Department is looking for,” said Laurie Ohmann, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Catholic Charities. “It felt to us that it was a matter of time that we could be closed by them.”

Meanwhile, she said, “the frequency of kids caught in cycles of abuse and neglect is something that the community is becoming more aware of, and we have been working with Hennepin County in this intake and shelter work since the ’70s.”

A ‘difficult decision’

Catholic Charities President and Chief Executive Officer Tim Marx said in a statement to The Catholic Spirit that the “difficult decision” to discontinue its refugee resettlement services arose from “restrictive federal policies limiting the number of refugees entering” the United States.

“‘Welcoming the stranger’ is a key tenet of Catholic social teaching, and we will continue to support four partnering agencies that lead the work of welcoming new Americans to our community,” Marx said. “We hope our exit will not reduce the number of new Americans welcomed to Minnesota.”

Refugee resettlement has shrunk under President Donald Trump’s administration due to travel bans he’s ordered, Ohmann said. Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. had allowed a maximum of 110,000 refugees to enter the country in 2016, while Trump has only allowed a limit of 45,000 in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. 

The effects trickle down to individual organizations that resettle refugees. Catholic Charities, which contracts with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, had the smallest number of refugees resettling among the five Minnesota organizations that work in resettlement. The U.S. State Department, which regulates refugee resettlement, requires organizations to resettle at least 100 refugees annually. 

“We were expecting to resettle 120 people this year, and two-thirds of the way through, we’re only at half of that,” Ohmann said. “It didn’t look likely that we would hit the 100 benchmark.”

Spike in child protection needs

While resettlement has dwindled, Catholic Charities has seen an overloaded child protection system in Hennepin County, the state’s largest county with a population of more than 1.2 million, based on the 2010 census.

From 2009 to 2017, the county saw an 87 percent spike in child protection reports. According to Hennepin County, child protection investigators pursued 8,300 of 21,800 reports in 2017 after its initial screening process.

“That was nearly a 100 percent increase in the number of reports screened since 2009,” Ohmann said.

Public awareness has grown because of Gov. Mark Dayton’s child protection task force and the media’s attention to children’s deaths in cases where they could have been prevented, Ohmann said.

“My sense is that more people are saying, ‘I’m not sure if this fits the definition of abuse or neglect, but it doesn’t feel right to me, so I’m going to make a call,’” she said. “The system is having to take a look at a much larger number of reports and trying to determine whether there are actually findings of maltreatment.”

Enter Catholic Charities’ St. Joseph’s Home for Children Emergency Shelter in Minneapolis. St. Joseph’s Home provides the emergency intake for Hennepin County child protection, which it had done for the past 40 years, and helps with the placement of children in alternative housing.

Its staff provides both medical and mental health assessments. Some children stay at St. Joseph’s Home, while others go to foster care or group homes. The home has 21 beds and could be expanded.

“I think the challenge is trying to make sure that once you make a placement for a kid, you want it to stick and not have them end up in a place that doesn’t quite work for them, and then they get caught in a revolving door of the child protection system,” Ohmann said.

In 2012, children stayed at St. Joseph’s Home an average of 17 days. In 2017, the length of stay was “inching above 40 days,” Ohmann said. 

Overall, 166 youths stayed at St. Joseph’s Home last year, and of them, 20 percent stayed 100 days or longer, Ohmann said.

“Lots of times, we’re seeing kids who need dental care or eyeglasses or need access to some medications,” she said. “We do the best we can to try and get them back into that rhythm, and get that provided for them.”

Some of the cases are “false alarms” with children who stay “just a short time but go back home or go to a member of the family,” Ohmann said. However, “there are certainly kids who are dealing with instances of neglect or instances of abuse and are with us for some time while the parents are being investigated for that.”

Of the 869 children who went through intake at St. Joseph’s Home last year, 81 percent were younger than 13, while the other 19 percent were between ages 13 and 17. 

Ohmann said some shelters specialize in helping younger children, while St. Joseph’s Home is equipped to work with adolescents. Catholic Charities wants to further explore how to help children of various ages. 

“Typically, what we find is as children age in the system … they are going have more challenging behaviors as well,” Ohmann said. “It makes it more difficult to find the right kind of placement for them to go to.”

The staff is implementing a trauma-informed framework, ARC, to help children process emotional pain. ARC stands for attachment, regulation and competency.

“Its basic idea is not what the kids did, but what happened to them and how they react to that,” Ohmann said. “We and they need to understand [that] in order to make sense of their world.”

To aid the growing child protection needs, Catholic Charities will close its Residential Treatment program at St. Joseph’s Home Aug. 1. The program had been receiving children from out-state Minnesota, making it more difficult to work with the families, and it had been handling more serious cases involving psychiatric care. Catholic Charities offers social services, but not intensive psychiatric care. It will work with families and caseworkers to have the children placed elsewhere. 

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