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Donatella Lorch

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Refugee Foster Care in Mississippi — When Cultures and People Clash

Donatella Lorch
March 19, 2003

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Refugee Foster Care in Mississippi — When Cultures and People Clash

(Note: The names of the Sudanese youth in foster care were changed because of foster care privacy rules.)

It was a simple misunderstanding. The article in the small Catholic Diocesan newsletter in Jackson, MS., welcomed the newly arrived Sudanese refugees and declared that they were “good eaters” and enjoyed their food. No doubt it was meant to point out that after more than a decade of malnutrition and even bouts of starvation, the 55 Sudanese teenagers that had just arrived there in late 2000 were enjoying the wide variety of American foods available to them. But in fact Mildred Williams, the director of the foster program at Catholic Charities in Jackson, had deeply insulted her new wards. In the Dinka and Nuer cultures of South Sudan, one never commented on the healthiness of another person’s appetite. It was synonymous with accusing them of being greedy. And if you sat and ate together, you certainly never admitted you were hungry.

At first it seemed like just a small glitch. But what followed in the next 12 months was a series of events that only deepened the refugees’ distrust of Williams and Catholic Charities. They shed light on a foster care system where it wasn’t unusual for a refugee to be shuttled from foster home to foster home, as many as five in one year. Williams and Catholic Charities used the police as a form of discipline enhancement, calling them at least eight times and having at least two boys temporarily detained. Siblings were kept in separate homes and rarely allowed to see each other. The Sudanese unhappiness was so widespread that 10 refugees abandoned the foster program in Jackson, foregoing the financial benefits and ran away to other states. (Three ultimately returned.)

They were dubbed Africa’s “Lost Boys” by the international relief community and their story is overwhelming in its horror, grief and courage. Separated from their parents in the mid-1980s during the civil war and famine in Southern Sudan when most were barely five or six years old, the Dinka and Nuer boys walked for several months to reach refugee camps in Ethiopia. During the almost biblical exodus of a quarter of a million Southern Sudanese, the children ran short of water and drank urine and ate tree leaves to survive. They watched friends die of hunger or be mauled by wild animals. Seventeen thousand young boys crossed into Ethiopia where, under the control of the Sudan People Liberation Army, the South Sudan’s rebel group, they were made to live in boy communities separate from other refugees. Human Rights organizations as well as some of the children say that many were trained as child soldiers. In 1991, a civil war in Ethiopia forced them to flee back into war-torn Sudan. Finally, in the spring of 1992, 12,000 boys arrived in Kenya, most of them barefoot and barely clothed. The United Nations settled them in the Kakuma refugee camp in the stark Turkana desert.

In November 2000, the Sudanese youth began yet another chapter in their lives. In the largest and most ambitious child- refugee relocation since the Vietnam War, the U.S. state department with the help of the United Nations, resettled in the space of one year 3,400 “Lost Boys” from Kakuma, nearly all who were left in Kenya. The youth were placed in 47 different communities. About 500 were under the age of 18 when they entered the States (68 of them were girls) and were put in foster care programs managed by resettlement agencies.

For the youth, it was as if they had been beamed into a different world. They had never seen running water or a refrigerator or been on a plane or in an elevator or watched television or eaten more than one meal a day. But with their blend of innocence and war-earned wisdom, eagerness to learn and curiosity to experience, they overwhelmingly won over the communities they moved into. They also posed complex challenges. Their whole world had been defined by refugee life, a welfare existence where all they needed to do was survive. The vast majority of the Sudanese placed in foster care were already 16 or 17 at the time they arrived and were accustomed to living on their own and fending for themselves. They were not used to the constraints and discipline of their new lives. In Mississippi, Catholic Charities, that has been resettling refugee minors since 1982, placed most of its male wards in group homes and some in supervised apartments called independent living. The girls and the youngest boys were placed with foster parents. The majority, with the added help of a dedicated group of volunteers, adapted well in their first year in Jackson. A dozen made the high school honor roll, one was chosen to represent Mississippi in a youth leadership conference. One entered a private 4-year-college last fall, with full scholarship. But there was also evidence of post-traumatic stress. At least two are suffering from serious depression and a few had trouble controlling their anger.

Almost immediately after their arrival, education became a major flashpoint, the crux of all the unhappiness in Jackson. It was also an issue in Sudanese resettlement across the country but Jackson seemed to witness the most severe repercussions. Since their earliest memories in Ethiopian refugee camps, education had been the youth’s mantra. Parentless, they equated it with the safety of family. Penniless, it was viewed as the only key to a future. They had all either finished or were about to finish high school in the Kenyan refugee camp and their perception was that they would immediately enter college in the States.

So there was a huge outcry when most of the youth placed only into 9th grade in the Mississippi public school system. Williams obviously was not at fault, but the youth didn’t see it that way. “That was a major, major upset because they were saying in Kakuma, I was in the 11th grade,” said Williams. “They wanted to leave Mississippi and go to a state where they could go to school.” Nothing and nobody could dissuade them. To add to the growing tension, Williams did not allow the boys from taking on part time jobs, even though they desperately wanted to send money back to friends in the refugee camp. Her argument was that the youths were not used to working and would not act responsibly and therefore give the Sudanese refugees a bad reputation in Jackson. “They wanted everything to happen right now and everything can’t happen right now,” explained Williams.

In my year of studying and following the Sudanese resettlement program, the major lesson I have gleaned from veteran case workers is the absolute need to build trust during the first few weeks. The appetite incident was a first strike against Catholic Charities. But it could have been easily overcome. What came to light was an ongoing clash of personalities. Kathy Gray, the wife of an Episcopal bishop in Jackson and a volunteer that tutored them extensively in English defined the problem. “These kids believe if someone acts on what they perceive is not their behalf, they think they are against them.”

Williams, with more than a decade in the refugee field, is a veteran. She was definitely tenacious about protecting her wards but her tactics kept the youth and many of the volunteers permanently on the defensive. Williams explained her role to the youth and to me: “Right now we are your Momma and your Poppa and we make the decisions for you,” she said. “Of course we give you choices, but the final decision lies with us because believe it or not, we do know what is best for you.”

The youth saw Williams as dictating to them, a very un-Sudanese way of dealing with people. They took it to heart and news of what they viewed as a crisis in their American lives quickly spread by phone to other Sudanese Lost Boy communities across the U.S. “Everyone in America knows the problems of the Mildred,” was the way Kelei, one of the more outspoken and argumentative Sudanese in the program, explained it to me. Many of the volunteers thought the program was inflexible and that the youth were treated automatically as would-be truants and never had a chance to prove themselves. “During foster care training, Mildred told the future parents that the kids knew the system and that they all lied,” said Barry Duke, a foster mother and the coordinator of the Sudanese volunteer program at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church.

By mid 2001, the mood among the youth in the group homes was unsettled. Kelei, who turned 18 in January 2001, stands 6″7’, is rail thin and has a missing front tooth. Williams refers to him as one of her major trouble makers. Volunteers believe he earned her distrust because he regularly questioned Williams’ and the case workers’ actions. Kelei was part of a group that wanted to leave Mississippi and head to other states to find jobs. They asked Williams to give them the original copy of their social security cards and their I-94s, the only piece of legal documentation they have from the US government that allows them to work as well as apply for a green card. It legally belongs to them but Catholic Charities, worried that the refugees will lose them, kept the originals in a fire proof safe. Williams told them she couldn’t give it to them.

In Mississippi, the road to adulthood is complicated if you are in foster care. The only way to get out of the system before the age of 21 is the prove you have been self sufficient for at least six months (impossible since the Sudanese were not allowed to get jobs) or to become what the state calls “a runaway.” Under state law, Williams told me, she can keep their papers for three months after the foster child leaves Mississippi. If the youth returns during that period, his refugee benefits are reinstated otherwise the state officially emancipates him. The Sudanese didn’t understand or accept this argument. They were convinced Williams wanted to block their escape. So part of the group just left without, driving to Florida in the middle of the night.

Kelei had stayed behind because he wanted at all costs his I-94. On a Friday in May, when he had been in the states about six months, he and six others skipped school and walked to the Catholic Charities office. They lay down on the reception floor, shoulder to shoulder, declaring they wouldn’t move until Williams gave them their papers. Kelei explained to me later that he was an adult and that he knew what his rights were: “I say there is no human right in the office of the director Mildred Williams.” The problem of course was that Kelei was straddling two legal worlds. He may have been 18 and legally an adult but he was also still in the foster care program and subject to Mississippi state laws.

By closing time, Kelei was the only youth left. According to Williams, he then dialed 911 and when the police came, asked them to force Catholic Charities to hand over his papers. The police gave him two choices: return to the group home or go to a youth detention center. He insisted he would sit outside the office for the entire weekend if necessary. The police ultimately took him away to a local detention center. It was three-day weekend and no one from Catholic Charities bothered to go check up on him. By chance after a couple of days, Kathy Gray, the wife of an Episcopal bishop in Jackson, heard what had happened and managed to track him down. She described the scene in the jail visiting room: “He walked out — a big tall young man with an orange jump suit and orange shoes. They (the youth) are so stately, with so much self-control. He wrapped his arms around me and wouldn’t let go. It’s as if we had been separated for years.”

After fleeing a lifetime of war and displacement, safety and security are feelings the youth talk about constantly. When they first arrived in the States, over and over again I heard them say: “I feel safe now,” and “I never felt safe before.” Gray believes Kelei never really understood that he was being taken to jail. He thought the police had come to help him not punish him. His weekend among strangers and behind bars sealed his opinion of Williams and broke the sense of security that many of the youth thought was synonymous with their life in America.

There were other police incidents. Williams had forbidden any of the youths living in independent housing to visit those in group homes without specific permission from Catholic Charities. When one of them broke her rules, she called the cops and accused him of trespassing. Another time, police was called when one of the teenagers refused to go to church with his foster mother and wouldn’t leave the group home where he was visiting at the time.

Barry Duke who is both volunteer and foster mother believes the refugees crave a sense of stability in their lives. “It’s like musical kids,” Duke says of the foster home program run by Catholic Charities. In just one month, five of the ten Sudanese girls were made to change homes. For most it was at least the third move that year. In two instances with teenage boys, they were not even aware they were changing homes until they were picked up at school by Catholic Charities. A case worker had already packed their possessions for them. When one youth who was 18 at the time, refused to go to his new foster home, his case worker called the police, Duke says.

In their first year in the States, the Sudanese rode a roller coaster of emotions as they figured out where and how they fit in. Without realizing it at the time, they helped shed light on the American foster care system which, claiming it is guarding the privacy of the children it is meant to protect, aggressively blocks out any prying eyes. Fourteen months after the first Sudanese arrived, Mildred Williams was removed as head of the unaccompanied minors program. She no longer has any say on the lives of the young men and women in foster care.

©2003 Donatella Lorch

Donatella Lorch, a correspondent for Newsweek, examined child refugees during her Patterson year.

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Donatella Lorch