Guidance for Working with Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Unaccompanied Migrant Children (UMC) are children or adolescents who travel across country borders without a legal guardian and without legal immigration documents. As of 2014, there has been a recent increase in the number of UMC crossing the southern border of the US from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. UMC often embark on their journeys to improve their desperate life circumstances; despite the severe adversities encountered, many cope with these experiences in very resilient, healthy, and productive ways. However, they often present with challenges, such as a lack of trust in authority, fears about service systems, and adjustment issues. Once in the US, their disposition is partially determined by their country of origin. If apprehended by immigration authorities at the border, UMC from Mexico are deported within 24 hours. UMC from non-contiguous countries, e.g., from Central American countries, are held in holding facilities to determine their identity, receive basic medical and social care, and for placement with a sponsor in the US, foster care, or group homes, depending on their particular circumstances and needs.

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What have Unaccompanied Migrant Children Experienced?

Many UMC have been separated from their parents or caregivers for many years. Many report hardships related to neglect, abuse, community, and gang violence. While in their country of origin, UMC may have experienced traumatic events including the following:

  • Lack of consistent caregivers
  • Homelessness and lack of other basic needs, e.g., education and food
  • Violence (as witnesses, victims, and/or perpetrators)
  • Gang and drug-related violence or threats
  • Physical injuries, infections, and diseases
  • Forced labor
  • Sexual assault
  • Lack of medical care
  • Loss of loved ones
  • War
  • Torture

During migration, UMC often face the same types of traumatic events or hardships that they faced in their country of origin, as well as new experiences such as the following:

Upon entering the US, UMC may still experience trauma such as community violence, abuse or neglect, and/or lack of basic resources. In addition, they may face stress associated with reunification, foster placement, or entering the US school system.

During reunification with a sponsor, such as a parent or family member, UMC may face the following:

During foster placement, UMC and their foster families may face the following:

UMC may have experienced limited or no previous schooling, significant disruptions in schooling due to poverty, community violence or displacement, and/or limited access to school supplies. Therefore, UMC may face the following challenges when entering the US school system: 

  • Being unfamiliar with school routines and expectations
  • Being placed in a classroom based on age that does not correspond to their skill or experience level
  • “First” experiences, such as eating new foods at lunch and taking a school bus
  • Discrimination, teasing, or bullying by other children at school due to their appearance, culture, religion, beliefs, or language
  • Trauma-related mental health symptoms, which may be exacerbated in a setting with authority figures

For more information on UMC and schools please see Supporting Unaccompanied Children in U.S. Schools

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How Does Trauma Impact Children, Including Unaccompanied Migrant Children?

While exposure to traumatic events can have a profound and lasting effect on the daily functioning of UMC, such exposure can cause the following general symptoms in youth of all ages:


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What are Some of the Complexities of Providing Treatment to Unaccompanied Migrant Children?

UMC have traveled a long way and worked very hard to meet their goal. Despite difficulties and hardship, they often demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness that can be leveraged as strengths in the healing process.

  • There is a lot at stake for these youth. Some know the dangers and uncertainty before they leave and choose to leave anyway; some make the journey multiple times despite having been deported previously.
  • UMC are often in debt because they borrowed money to pay coyotes to help them travel to the US.
  • UMC live every day with the possibility of deportation.
  • UMC may lack resources including health insurance, transportation, education, and vocational training.
  • Complex trauma may be present. UMC may have faced abandonment and neglect in addition to repeated exposure to and experience of traumatic events.


What Are the Cultural Considerations When Working with Unaccompanied Migrant Children?

Providing care for UMC is both challenging and rewarding. UMC may come from cultures that differ in fundamental ways from the US. Differences in cultural subgroups —related to gender, socioeconomic status, language/dialect, and ethnicity—may affect the following:

  • Understanding of health, mental health, and healing
  • Stigma of consulting with a mental health professional
  • Beliefs about the best course of treatment
  • Expectations of outcomes of treatment
  • Trust of providers or service systems

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How Can Providers Enhance Their Cultural and Clinical Competence?

  • Read basic information about the UMC's country and culture of origin.
  • Acknowledge the difficulties that UMC and their families have experienced.
  • Learn about the community where UMC live and develop relationships with community providers so you can provide a coordinated response.
  • Understand their basic needs and help leverage resurces in order to meet these needs.
  • Provide culturally and linguistically sensitive services by using cultural brokers or interpreters when possible (for more on using interpreters and cultural brokers click here).
  • Make efforts to learn and respect UMC understandings of symptoms and healing.
  • Remember that UMC's situations are often tenuous due to their legal circumstances; be aware of how this might affect treatment goals and interventions.


Additional Resources

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) operates a Parent Hotline 7 days a week (800- 203-7001) from 9am-9pm ET for parents seeking to locate their children in ORR care.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS): Provides resettlement services, legal and social services to help resettle migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in the United States.

Catholic Charities and Conference of Catholic Bishops: provides services including disaster relief and resettlement resources and promotes poverty-reduction through research and legislative reform.

Bridging Refugee Youth and Children’s Services (BRYCS): Maintains the nation's largest online collection of resources related to refugee and immigrant children and families, with a goal to increase the sharing of information and collaboration among refugee-serving and mainstream agencies at the local, state, regional, and national levels.

KIND Kids in Need of Defense is a national organization that provides legal counsel for unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children in the US

Life is Good Kids Foundation trains child care professionals to use the power of play to build life-changing relationships with children in their care.

Resilience and Recovery After War: Refugee Children and Families in the United States (PDF)- a report from the American Psychological Association, 2010, on refugees in the United States. 

Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century (PDF)- a report from the American Psychological Association, 2012, on immigration and immigrants in the United States. 


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