Noank nonprofit: Child impacted by Trump policy will reunite with family

Groton — An immigrant child separated from family and sent to a local shelter under a now-defunct Trump administration policy is on track to reunite with them, a shelter official said Friday.

Regina Moller, executive director of Noank Community Support Services, declined to describe the child or the shelter’s location, citing safety reasons. But she said the child is staying in the nonprofit’s 12-bed shelter, which is “usually full” and dedicated to hosting “unaccompanied alien children” under a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program.

At first, Moller said, officials didn’t disclose that the child had been separated from family members under the controversial zero-tolerance policy announced in April. Under it, U.S. officials began jailing every adult caught illegally crossing the border, or trying to do so — a misdemeanor offense. They sent accompanying children to warehouses or smaller shelters like the one the Noank group runs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he implemented the policy in reaction to a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018. But as video and audio footage emerged from the warehouses where the children are being held, backlash against the policy grew.

Facing bipartisan and international pressure, President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order ending the separation in favor of jailing families together. Prior to that, U.S. officials relocated an estimated 2,300 children, 500 of whom they said have since rejoined their families.

Moller said the child at her shelter has talked to a parent by phone and should get to rejoin his or her family, although the timeline isn’t clear.

“We did not separate the child,” Moller said, “but any child on our doorstep that needs help, we’re there for.”

Noank Community Support Services got involved in housing unaccompanied immigrant children during the Obama years, Moller said. The Council on Accreditation, a nonprofit accreditor of human services, had said there was “an urgent and compelling need” for credentialed shelters with space to serve the children, most of whom crossed the border alone or with a sibling.

“We’re in the business of compassion,” said Moller, whose 46-year-old nonprofit also helps adults with chronic mental illness, young adults who are homeless and children in foster care. “We wanted to respond to all of the children coming over, many of whom are seeking asylum.”

A three-year, $1.7 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services is helping to fund the shelter, which has a clinician, a nurse, a teacher and case managers on staff and sometimes enlists community partners.

It’s the only shelter in Connecticut licensed to get unaccompanied immigrant children after federal officials have processed them.

The children there largely hail from Central America. Some are teenagers who have children of their own. Many were working in fields with limited or no schooling. All share horrific experiences, Moller said.

“They’re not coming over here just to settle in another country and avoid the legal immigration process,” she said.

Some, she said, watched the murders of their parents or saw body parts in plastic bags. Others — the older ones — say they were threatened by drug lords: If you don’t work for us, we’ll kill your baby in the morning.

“So they leave that night,” Moller said. “They’re coming out of complete desperation and fleeing for their lives, truly fleeing.”

At the “family-like” shelter, children undergo a regular school day but also play games and visit local beaches or places like Mystic Aquarium. They learn life skills, get introduced to English, practice art. A therapist runs group and individual sessions to help them process the violence and other trauma they experienced in their countries and on their way here. Legal partners represent them as they seek legal asylum, while case managers try to locate relatives already in the United States.

The average stay, Moller said, is four to six weeks.

“They’re all wonderful children,” she said. “They’re so grateful to be here. They laugh again. They’re happy. They sit around the dining room table and eat and laugh.

“We didn’t look at this as political,” she said. “We looked at it as children in need.”

Moller said donations supplement the 2017 grant, which doesn’t cover the full cost of the shelter and comes with rigorous requirements and audits.

Asked whether she plans to reapply at the end of the three-year period, Moller said, “I hope that we don’t have to.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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