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CHICAGO — Lawmakers have called for immediate action and a federal investigation into the “mental health crisis” among young Afghan evacuees at a Chicago shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children, where workers say that language and cultural barriers have made it difficult to provide adequate care.
Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat and Illinois’ senior senator, asked the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general to investigate the situation at a shelter run by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, also an Illinois Democrat, called on HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to have the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement improve mental health services at the shelter.
Rep. Bobby Rush, whose district is home to the shelter in the Bronzeville neighborhood, has said he was “horrified” by the conditions at the facility, which were detailed in a ProPublica story. “These children from Afghanistan have experienced unimaginable trauma,” he said in a statement, “and the language barrier hindering communication between them and the staff at Heartland is only compounding that trauma and confusion.”
Meanwhile, workers at the shelter said interpreters who speak the children’s languages, Pashto and Dari, are now based in the building, eliminating a shortcoming in care.
ProPublica reported Thursday that many of the dozens of Afghan children and teens at the Bronzeville shelter have harmed themselves, talked about wanting to die or required psychiatric hospitalization in recent weeks. Some have hurt other children or staff.
“Some of these incidents have escalated due to a lack of culturally-sensitive support, including appropriate translators and interpreters, and/or have been exacerbated by long stays and a lack of appropriate psychosocial mental-health services for these children — many of whom are dealing with significant trauma,” Durbin wrote Monday in a letter to the HHS inspector general’s office.
The department oversees ORR and is ultimately responsible for the nation’s shelter system. A spokesperson for the inspector general’s office confirmed receipt of Durbin’s letter and said officials were “reviewing it for appropriate response.”
“ORR takes any allegations regarding the safety and well-being of kids in our care very seriously, and we have had a team of staff at ORR headquarters working closely with all providers who are caring for unaccompanied Afghan minors,” an HHS spokesperson said. “We will continue to work closely with all providers serving unaccompanied Afghan minors to ensure that their needs are being met, including mental and behavioral health services, in partnership with community organizations and Congress.”
Durbin also wrote to ORR Director Cindy Huang asking for information about how the agency ensures that shelters housing Afghan children have adequate staff and resources.
“What policies are in place regarding interpreters at ORR-supported facilities?” Durbin asked. “How does ORR ensure that children are able to communicate with facility staff in their native languages?”
Duckworth wrote a separate letter Monday to Becerra calling on ORR to take immediate action, including making it a priority to use in-person interpreters and to help Heartland bolster the mental health care resources. She also asked ORR to conduct a “thorough review” of the cases involving children who had been at the Bronzeville shelter for long periods and work to place youths who have no relatives or family friends to sponsor them in “culturally competent foster settings.”
“As I am sure we can agree, housing children in what is supposed to be a temporary site for months at a time is not in the children’s best interest,” Duckworth wrote.
Heartland is the largest shelter operator in the country caring for young Afghan evacuees. On Tuesday, Heartland officials said 80 Afghan children were in their four Chicago shelters. Federal officials said Monday there were 185 young Afghan evacuees in federal care. Records obtained by ProPublica show that, as of Monday, 43 Afghan children were at the Bronzeville shelter, the largest in Heartland’s portfolio.
Of those, 25 had been at the shelter for at least 50 days; 16 had been there for at least 60 days; and two had been there for at least 70 days. ProPublica reported in 2018 on how prolonged stays led to despair, confusion and suicidal ideation among children in that shelter.
In a statement, Heartland officials said they welcomed the lawmakers’ intervention.
“Our country’s infrastructure to care for people seeking safety here is severely under-resourced following the intentional actions by the previous federal administration,” they said. “The country must strengthen this infrastructure to meet the cultural, language and mental health needs of children who have experienced heartbreaking traumas, including the Afghan youth who have suddenly arrived here in the last two months.”
Heartland officials said the Afghan children, who were evacuated after the end of the U.S. war there, represent the “largest influx” of minors who speak the same language — outside of Spanish — they have received in the more than two decades the organization has operated a shelter program for unaccompanied immigrant minors.
According to the organization’s statement, Heartland has worked to secure ORR funding and vet interpretation services to provide on-site interpreters “for the first time given the rapid and large arrival of Afghan youth.” Interpreters began arriving on Saturday to help ease the communication barriers between staff and children. By the end of the week, Heartland says there will be 36.
Workers said they were delighted to see them.
“The kids are calmer,” said an employee at the Bronzeville shelter.
A worker at Heartland’s Rogers Park facility said, “We are all so happy, those of us who work with the kids.”
In their statement, Heartland officials said it’s been a challenge to get the Afghan children the mental health treatment they need — a problem the officials said has been compounded by systemic barriers at the city and state level. Experts and advocates have long complained about a shortage of mental health workers and psychiatric beds for children.
“We have been working closely with City and State partners to remove significant systemic barriers to streamline access to psychiatric care for the youth in our care who are experiencing sad, profound urgent mental health needs,” Heartland said.