I wish the organization I lead didn’t exist.
That may sound strange to you, but Buckner International was founded in 1879 as Buckner Orphans Home to care for orphans in post-Civil War Texas. For the past 139 years, we have cared for the most vulnerable children imaginable.
Last year, more than 1,100 Texas foster children lived with us. We also have foster care programs in six other countries. These children come to Buckner because of separation. They are separated from their biological families for a variety of reasons; the primary reasons are abuse, neglect and abandonment.
For decades, organizations like Buckner ran orphanages, places to house and care for children separated from their parents.
As one alumna from the 1930s and ’40s wrote in a book chronicling life at the orphans home, “We came because our homes and families had been destroyed by overwhelming disasters: illness, desertion or deaths that left us helpless. We found food and shelter, an education, faith in God, friends, and above all, stability. It was as if a hand reached down, plucked us from dire circumstances and carried us away.”
If you ask the children who grew up during the days of large, institutional orphanages, most will tell you that if they’d had a choice, they would have chosen a family instead.
Children do not belong in institutions. Children belong in families.
In the last 20 years, most child care agencies have moved away from institutional care for children. This movement is based on clinical research and lessons learned from experience with children raised in institutions. Organizations like Buckner have launched a variety of family preservation programs designed to protect children by strengthening their biological families. When the biological family breaks down for whatever reason, the next place children should go is to a foster or adoptive family — never to an institution, and especially not to one surrounded by fences.
Our team sees the trauma separated children face every day. Even the threat of separation from parents can cause severe and long-lasting trauma.
It is our firsthand experience that leads us to affirm the decision to end the policy of separating children from their parents on our southern border.
This issue is not new and we can be certain a similar crisis will occur in the future. We need to equip government agencies at all levels as we learn from the current situation and from the 2014 unaccompanied immigrant crisis so we’re ready the next time.
First, let’s recognize that we need to keep children with their parents by housing them together. If that doesn’t work for whatever reason, we need to recruit and train foster parents in border states who can care for these children in a family setting until they can be reunited with their biological parents.
Buckner knows from our experience in Guatemala and other Latin American countries that it is cheaper, easier and more effective for citizens in those countries to help them stay in their country of origin by providing family strengthening programs. Our work in Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras ensures that families can stay together in the communities where they have social support.
Trump administration officials and other government leaders should convene a group of child development experts who have experience in working with separated children to examine and explore alternatives for the future and to ensure that these imperatives are at the forefront for the future. Let’s remember that the best crisis management is to avoid the crisis in the first place. That’s also better for children.
We have spent the past 139 years trying to work ourselves out of a job. Today, our emphasis is on crisis prevention and the preservation of families. Our endgame is permanency for children.
At the center is a core belief, proven clinically and biblically, that the place for children is in a family. Children belong in families — strong families.
The solution to the current crisis is simple and right in front of us. If everyone will just ask the question, “What’s best for the children?” we will all come to the same conclusion: Children belong in a family.
Written by Albert Reyes, president and CEO of Buckner International