The Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) program refers to a subset of kids in foster care who come from other countries without a parent, guardian or any relationship with someone in the United States.
When I told my friends I’ve decided to foster kids in the URM program, they had a lot of questions! Here are some of the most prevalent questions I received.
What are the typical age ranges?
A youth can enter the URM program any time before their 18th birthday and can receive services from the URM agency until 21. A majority of the kids in the URM program are teenagers, typically from 15-17.
From 2014-2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that the youngest URM youth was 4 at the time of entry into the program and the oldest was 17. My home study social worker relayed a story about a youth’s 18th birthday the day after he entered the program, but he was still able to receive services through the program.
Kids in the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program come to the U.S. without any parent/guardian or other sponsor, so they are typically older as it is harder to make the journey alone. Because I was specifically interested in the URM program, I was licensed for ages 12-18. This seems to be about the typical age range for URM youth.
What countries are the kids from?
While a vast majority of kids in the URM program come from South and Central America, there’s a pretty wide range of countries represented. The ORR estimates that from 2014 to 2018, “kids came from over 50 countries of origin, represented over 100 ethnicities.”
Central and South America represented about 45% of the children, while the next largest category (19.2%) came from East Africa. The countries of origin seem to follow trends with other policies and global events and increase or decrease based on these factors.
How many kids enter the URM program each year?
Covid-19 has severely impacted where and how many kids come into the program. Throughout my research on the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program over the past year or so, I was listening to a podcast that mentioned Title 42.
Title 42 is this (apparently previously not enacted) presidential executive order that essentially bans or drastically reduces the limits on how many immigrants can enter the country. The picture below depicts how many asylum cases were processed compared to how many immigrants were turned away immediately.
As you can see, the Title 42 impacts on kids and people of all ages coming to the U.S. are wide-reaching. Due to Title 42 and other public policy and current events, the numbers of children coming to America may vary greatly.
What languages do the kids speak?
The ORR estimates that there are over 80 distinct languages spoken by children in the URM program. Similarly to the country of origin, the primary language spoken varies with the increase (or decrease) of kids from a specific region.
The primary spoken language is Spanish, which should come as no surprise as Central and South Americans represent the largest group. What was surprising to me, though, is the second primary language.
Tigrinya is a language that is spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Google Translate doesn’t have Tigrinya as an option, so that might be hard to communicate with any future foster kids- but I’ll make it work if I have to!
How do refugee minors enter the program?
The URM program is only offered in select states and certain agencies are certified to provide the URM program to foster families.
Typically, a child refugee is detained at the border or at customs, and biographical information is entered into a database that is available for all URM agencies to view. The URM contact person at an agency will read through this info and determine if their agency has a foster family that may be a good match for this youth.
Once the program manager has the initial call with the foster family and the family is open to moving forward with the placement, a video call (skype, FaceTime…etc.) is set up. After that, arrangements- like flights and transportation are made and the child is placed with the foster family.
*Coming soon: a whole post with information on what to ask during the initial call*
What is the goal of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program?
The goal for children in the URM program is two-pronged. As with domestic foster care, URM caseworkers’ first goal is to reunify children with their families. However, when that is not possible, caseworkers explore two other routes for youth in the program.
Unaccompanied Refugee Minor youth aren’t often eligible for legal adoption in the United States. This is because they do have parents, though the parents are in a different country.
Many URM youth are informally “adopted” by their foster families. They may attend holidays, family gatherings or other family events with the foster family even after exiting the program. Typically, kids who enter foster care (in any situation) have a case plan. Case plans set forth the goals the family should reach before reunification. The case plans may look very different for URM foster cases and domestic foster care.
In domestic foster care, the timeline for reunification or termination of parental rights typically is around a year or so. With URM children, the timeline is different, as many youth cannot be reunified with anyone in the United States.
For those who are eligible for adoption in the United States, the process would be the same as domestic foster-to-adopt programs.
Often, self-sufficiency and independence is the primary goal for URM youth. I will discuss a little later the services the youth are offered to help them become more self-sufficient. Various supports are put in place to help these teens overcome barriers like drug use, trauma and cultural barriers.
Independence is a big deal for youth who have come to the U.S. alone. They have often been the primary caretaker or provider in their families of origin. Many young people hope to come to the United States to earn an income to send to their families in their home country.
Youth who come to America without legal status are unable to work or apply for many scholarships, so helping them gain the legal status required to secure a job or go to college is critical.
How long do kids in the URM Program stay in the program?
Kids enter the URM program at various ages, and therefore the length of time they are in the program varies. The kids must enter the program before their 18th birthday, but they can receive services until they are 21.
Because reunification with biological family isn’t always possible, these kids may stay in the foster care system often much longer than children in domestic foster care.
What services are offered to kids through the URM Program?
Kids who enter the URM program before the age of 18 are eligible for services until they are 21. Here are some of the ways the agency helps to support the youth:
- Indirect financial support for housing, food, clothing…etc.
- Legal services
- Independent living skills training
- Education services like career/college counseling
- English language classes
- Medical and mental health services
- Cultural activities (for both foster parents and kids)
Since I knew at the start of my journey I was interested in the URM program, questions about the cultural centers or various restaurants nearby were a part of my home study. It seemed to me that my agency was invested in making the cultural shift for these kids as uneventful as possible.
What does contact with biological family look like?
This was my biggest question going into accepting URM foster placements. With domestic foster care, the child may have several hours-long visits per week. These visits may be mandated and sometimes it may be best for the foster parent to stay the entire duration of the visit.
With URM foster care, that is not the case. Typically, the youth is more “in control” of when and how they communicate with family.
Sometimes communication with family can be difficult as kids may be coming from places where telephones are not present in every home. They may have also lost contact with family in the course of the journey, or it may pose a danger to their family if the youth tries to contact them.
Many kids do have contact with at least some of their birth family members. Often this contact is either by phone or social media sites, especially WhatsApp.
Where can I find more resources about the URM program?
Much of the data and information contained above is from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). You can find more information on ORR’s website here.
The council on Foreign Relations also has some good information.
The agency I foster with has a list of books and other demographic information about the URM program. Check out your local agency for information specific to your area.
How do I become a foster family for an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor?
Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) are the two national agencies that coordinate placements with the local URM providers.
Check out either LIRS or USCCB to find out more. Also check out this post that explains the process for becoming a foster parent.