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Abbott House Serves as Halfway Haven for Refugee Children

by Barrett Seaman 

An Abbott House refugee child tries out her donated motorized wheelchair. — Photo Credit: Barrett Seaman

An Abbott House refugee child tries out her donated motorized wheelchair.
— Photo Credit: Barrett Seaman

One young girl arrived wearing her only piece of clothing: a potato sack. Another had a severe heart murmur; another, cerebral palsy. Often coming from impoverished Central American villages—some wracked by gang violence, many of these children have never seen a doctor. Since late June, they have been arriving in groups of four, or 10 or 12. At any given time, there may be a dozen or so at Abbott House, the leafy hilltop campus that has provided shelter and succor to needy children for more than half a century.

Three years ago, after two previous unsuccessful applications, Abbott House was awarded a federal Health and Human Services Department (HHS) grant to take children admitted by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) without an adult guardian. This summer brings the third renewal of that grant, called the “Transitional Resources for Children” program. Since the program began, 43 refugee children have come through Abbott House.

According to a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, the two grants awarded Abbott House totaled $6.3 million for standard shelter care and long-term foster care.

During their stay, which has been averaging 17 days over the past 18 months, the children are provided medical and psychological attention, clothing, food and education.

“The government expects us to take care of them,” said Abbott House President and CEO James L. Kaufman, “and we do.”

When they arrive, said Program Director Doris Laurenceau, “We give them a hot shower clean clothes, a room of their own, a meal and a medical exam.” Their clothing, toiletries, toys and sports equipment come from community donations. One child needed a wheelchair, and Irvington donors went out and found one.

Under the guidance of Medical Director Dr. Luis Rodriguez, each child is given a complete medical examination, including eye and ear tests. “These children are very, very poor and often have had no medical attention,” said Dr. Rodriguez. “Many have undiagnosed medical problems.”

When those problems are complicated, Abbott House reaches out to a network of specialists in Westchester and New York City. Many of these are associated with the Bronx’s Montefiore Medical Center.

Though their stays are typically brief, Abbott House schools each of them. Every day, there are classes in English, math, social studies and science. They are told about their rights in American society. They learn the Pledge of Allegiance. Said Laurenceau, “They leave here knowing basic English.”

“The opportunity to learn is one of the program’s greatest gifts,” said Kaufman. “These kids literally line up to go to school in the morning.”

The goal is to match each child up with relatives in the U.S. The preliminary job of finding those families is done by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Each child arrives with a name and a phone number. From there, it’s up to staffers at Abbott House to contact the identified relatives and vet them to make sure they can take on a child and raise him or her responsibly and lovingly. According to the HHS spokesperson, “approximately 87% of sponsors are parents or close family members. If there is not a suitable parent or other relative in the U.S., ORR grantees work with the family to identify an individual who might care for the child while their immigration proceedings are pending.”

Children have left Abbott House to go to families as far as California and Washington State. “Even if out of state,” said Lauren Candela-Katz, Abbott House’s Director of Development and Communications, “we will have our staff fly out first to vet the family and the living conditions, the ability to care for and meet the needs of the child.”

It is a kind of reverse vetting process. “We have an intense conversation with their families about their rights,” said Laurenceau. Of particular concern is that once embedded with a family, the refugee children are not then used as slave labor.

Not every child in the program has a family tie in the U.S. For these truly foster children, Abbott House works with agencies to find foster families in the New York Metro area. As of mid-August, there were four such long-term foster care children at the facility.

A non-profit that has housed orphans and children with a variety of mental and physical disabilities for decades, Abbott House is well suited to handle these refugee children. Originally a convalescent hospital, particularly for rheumatic fever patients, it was officially incorporated as a child welfare agency in 1963. Its Therapeutic Foster Care program has taken in children from Westchester and three nearby counties. It has expanded its services to include children with a range of disabilities, physical and psychiatric.

With the flow of refugees, as well as its ongoing population of needy children, Abbott House is always looking for both donations and volunteers. Those wishing to contribute either clothing or toiletries or their own time should contact Lauren Candela-Katz, Director of Development & Communications, at Lcandela-katz@abbotthouse.net or (914) 409-0088.

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