Abbott House in Irvington Caring for Separated Children

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by Zein B. Jardaneh – 

News of the separation of nearly 2,000 children from their families between April 18 and May 31 while crossing the U.S. border, due to the Trump Administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal immigration, prompted outcries and calls for action across the country. Westchester County and New York State were no exception.

At the state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced, on June 19, that New York State would be filing a multi-agency lawsuit against the Trump Administration, on the grounds that the federal government is violating the constitutional rights of those separated at the border. While President Trump signed an executive order on June 20 reversing his own policy, Cuomo confirmed that the state would still move forward with its suit. Many, Cuomo included, argue that the damage that has taken place cannot be undone through one fell swoop of President Trump’s pen.

Cuomo also revealed that as many as 700 of the children recently separated from their families were brought to New York and are being cared for by social-service agencies contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide such care. Four of the agencies are located in Westchester County, including Abbott House in Irvington, the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, Rising Ground in Yonkers and Lincoln Hall in Somers. A gag order imposed by the federal government has resulted in limited-to-no information being released by these agencies concerning the status of these unaccompanied children.

Responding to community and media inquiries, Abbott House posted a statement about its Transitional Resources for Children Program on its website. A product of a contract with the Office of Refugee Settlement at HHS to run the Unaccompanied Minors Shelter Program, the Transitional Resources for Children Program ran from 2013 to 2015, and again from 2017 to the present.

Speaking after the statement’s release, Lauren Candela-Katz, Chief Development Officer at Abbott House, emphasized and elaborated on different components of the statement.

“Our mission is to reunite these kids with their families and provide them with permanent homes as soon as possible,” said Candela-Katz.

Abbott House accepts children who are separated from their parents, believing that what they provide is a better alternative to other available options.

“When kids are traumatized, you need to create a nurturing environment that any parent in the U.S. would want for their child,” she added, stating that Abbott House strives to provide such environments for children during their stay.

Within 24 hours of arriving at Abbott House, children receive medical and mental health care, and are seen by social workers. Abbott House is funded to care for up to 51 children at a time through the Transitional Resources for Children Program, which includes providing beds, two classrooms and other basic needs for the children.

“We are a not-for-profit and a non-political organization,” said Candela-Katz. “We rely on government grants to fund this program, and the generosity and support of the community to ensure that every child gets the best care possible. And we still struggle to break even.”

As national and local discourse increases the attention such agencies receive for the social services they are providing – and in some cases, have been for years – support from local communities is increasing in tandem.

“We are overwhelmed by the amount of in-kind donations we have received in the past week,” said Candela-Katz, adding that they are placing a temporary hold on accepting in-kind support until they sort through current donations and identify further needs. She noted, however, that financial support to provide extra services for children served at Abbott House efficiently and effectively is always welcome.

Similarly, the Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, both through its own website and a message posted on the official site of Hastings-on-Hudson by the village’s mayor, Peter Swiderski, outlined ways in which the community can further its support of the Children’s Village. The Mayor and the organization, which straddles Dobbs Ferry and Hastings, specified the need for “welcome packs” for unaccompanied minors, which can include items such as personal hygiene kits, coloring books, colorful t-shirts and Spanish language books.

Neither Swiderski nor the Children’s Village revealed the number of children in the organization’s care. Swiderski confirmed that the Children’s Village is, and has been, accepting unaccompanied minors for 10 years through the federal government’s refugee resettlement program.

Meanwhile, in one of several rallies planned by community organizations across the county, dozens of protestors gathered at the steps of the Westchester County Office Building in White Plains on June 22. Speakers at the rally, organized by Westchester Women’s Agenda, a non-profit advocating on behalf of women in the county, included state and county-elected officials, religious leaders, health experts and activists. Speeches echoed crowd’s chants calling to keep families together, but speakers implored attendees to take a stand against all divisive polices enacted by the Trump Administration.

“We need to make a statement about [immigration policy] because it’s a human issue,” said Westchester County Executive George Latimer, urging attendees to work together to end intolerance in the U.S. “We also need to make a broader statement, that we believe in an America that is inclusive, that’s tolerant and understanding.”

Joana Kaso, an immigration and human trafficking attorney at My Sister’s Place, an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence and human trafficking, expressed outrage over the separation of families at the border. Kaso, herself a recipient of asylum under U.S. law 12 years ago, said that those seeking refuge in the U.S. have already endured the unimaginable for the possibility of a second chance at life. “Now they are finding that door slammed shut, and worse, having their children pulled from their arms,” she said.

The rally culminated in a march from the Westchester County Office Building to the Martin Luther King, Jr. statue in front of the Westchester Country Courthouse half a mile away.

Speaking to The Hudson Independent after the rally, New York State Senator Shelley Mayer (D –District 37), urged Americans of all political persuasions to make their voices heard. “We have to make clear that splitting families is profoundly against the fundamentals of American compassion and generosity of spirit and the central family values that we all believe in,” she said.

Elected officials and organizations representing and within Westchester, including Democrat Congresswoman Nita Lowey (NY-17), the Westchester County Human Rights Commission, and the Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center, have also issued statements condemning the federal government’s actions. Statements decried the separation of families, with some highlighting the irreversible and undue trauma caused by enacting such immigration policies.

According to sources familiar with the local agencies, a congressional delegation was expected to visit Children’s Village, and a video produced locally by Felicia Patinkin, describing the TRC program at Abbott House, was scheduled to air on national television.

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