Many unaccompanied migrant children who arrive in the D.C. region from Central America come to live with a parent or family member.

After the reunification happens, parents and children face a new challenge: rebuilding relationships strained by years of distance and trauma.

We’ll take a look at a program, developed by Fairfax County Public Schools and now spreading through the region, that tries to ease the process of family reunification.

Produced by Margaret Barthel


  • Katie Kuennen Associate Director of Children's Services, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; @mrsserves
  • Ligia Díaz Immigrant Family Reunification Program Lead, Fairfax County Public Schools
  • Sheila Gotti English for Speakers of Other Languages Teacher, Mark Twain Middle School


  • 12:27:12

    KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Last week, we took a look at the challenges facing migrant children attending public schools around the Washington region. And while national headlines about the flood of migrant children from Central America are focused on those children who have been separated from their caregivers at the border, most children come to the U.S. to live with a parent or family member who is already here. But after they are reunited, parents and children face a new challenge: rebuilding relationships strained by years of distance and by trauma.

  • 12:27:41

    KOJO NNAMDIToday, we look at a program developed by Fairfax County Public Schools, and now spreading across the region, to help heal the bonds between immigrant parents and their children. Joining me in studio is Katie Kuennen, associated director of children's services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Katie Kuennen, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:59

    KATIE KUENNENThank you so much.

  • 12:28:01

    NNAMDIMigrant children have been in the national news a lot lately, but usually the story stops at the border. What happens to these children after that?

  • 12:28:09

    KUENNENSo, after the children are apprehended at the border and determined to be under the age of 18, they are deemed unaccompanied minors, and at which point they are then transferred to the care and custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement. And at that point, the children are placed within a large residential care provider network and subsequently reunified, or seek reunification with family members and caregivers across the United States.

  • 12:28:40

    NNAMDIGive us a sense. Our region has one of the highest numbers of migrant children arriving. What can you tell us about the reasons for that?

  • 12:28:46

    KUENNENSure. Absolutely. So, the children that arrive certainly seek family reunification with caregivers already present, oftentimes, here in the United States. And within the larger metropolitan region, we have seen -- currently, and over the past several years -- very significant rates of reunification within the metro region, DC, Maryland, Virginia area, primarily due to the fact that this is where family members, parents, other members of the child's family reside with whom the child is seeking to reunify, as well as to be safe from the reasons that they fled their country to begin with.

  • 12:29:26

    NNAMDIA lot of your work at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has to do with helping migrant children and their families access social services. What kinds of services are you connecting them to in this area?

  • 12:29:37

    KUENNENSure. Absolutely. So, we work with several partners here in the metropolitan Washington area to connect children and families with follow-up services after their reunification and release from federal immigration custody. So, these are things such as linking to legal services, immigration services, ensuring children are connected with a case worker to assist them with, you know, enrolling in school, accessing vital medical mental health and other social services depending on the unique needs of the individual child.

  • 12:30:08

    NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Ligia Diaz. She leads the Immigrant Family Reunification Program at Fairfax County Public Schools. Ligia, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:30:19

    LIGIA DIAZThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:30:20

    NNAMDIAs I said, you run the Immigrant Family Reunification Program out of Fairfax County Public Schools. Before we hear more about the program, tell us: what is Family Reunification, and why is it a challenge?

  • 12:30:32

    DIAZExactly. What Katie was describing, it's families that have come here a few years before, and then they bring their kids. And so there's a process of reuniting and living together again after years of separation. And there are challenges to that, of course. So, in many cases, these children were taken care of by other family members back in their home countries for several years while the parents were working really hard here to, you know, gather some resources and financial resources to bring them here.

  • 12:31:12

    DIAZAnd so the kids tend to feel neglected, abandoned, and the parents feel that they have done everything. They were sacrificing everything for these kids. So, when we bring them together to our classes, to our program, we talk about the parents' perspective and the children's perspective about reunification and acculturation, so that we can build a bridge between the two.

  • 12:31:41

    NNAMDISo, that is what the Immigrant Family Reunification Program is all about. How successful is it in helping parents and children to heal their bonds?

  • 12:31:51

    DIAZWell, we hear that about 83 percent of the parents say at the end of the program that they feel they have earned some skills. They have learned skills to deal with their kids, that they feel that they are better parents after taking this class with us. So, for us, it's the first step. We always tell them, this is not everything, but if you take this class, you will start to build a better relationship with your kids. And that's how it works.

  • 12:32:24

    NNAMDI(overlapping) How long has the program been running, and roughly how many parents do you serve?

  • 12:32:30

    DIAZSo, the program started to be built in the year 2011. We heard in our office, Family and School Partnerships, that many parent liaisons, social workers, counselors were asking questions about how to work with this population of kids that were not living with their parents for several years. And Robin Hamby wrote this curriculum, started researching, started talking to people, started asking parents and parent liaisons how to work with them better. And we were actually researching for a whole year before we had the curriculum together.

  • 12:33:16

    DIAZThen we started offering the first few classes in 2013. And since then, we have offered classes in different schools. We have offered around -- I cannot say -- maybe between 10 and 14 classless per year in different areas. And we have also trained other school districts and nonprofits in the area, so that they can offer the class to their parents, as well.

  • 12:33:48

    NNAMDIHow do you identify parents who might benefit from this program? Is it difficult to gain their trust?

  • 12:33:54

    DIAZWe work very closely with the parent liaisons. They are the first point of contact with the families. We also work very closely with ESOL teachers, with counselors and social workers. If someone that doesn't know them start talking about this program, they probably won't get enthusiastic about coming to the class. So, we really rely on somebody that already has a relationship with the families to invite them, because they won't talk about these issues openly in the schools.

  • 12:34:26

    NNAMDIYou mention ESOL teachers. We do have one in the studio. Sheila Gotti teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at Mark Twain Middle School in Fairfax County. Sheila, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:34:36

    SHEILA GOTTIThank you for having me.

  • 12:34:37

    NNAMDIGet to you in a moment. I had a few more questions, though, for Ligia. You helped us to interview a mother Lela who attended a session of the program after her son came to this country from El Salvador. They'd been separated for 12 years. Let's hear what Lela told you about what happened when they reunited.

  • 12:35:02

    DIAZSo, I went to New York to pick him up. And I asked: how was that moment? And she paused, and she -- her voice kind of broke a little bit, and she said, it was amazing. It was amazing to hold him, after 12 years. And it was also difficult. He had been mistreated by my mom, and he had been told that I was not a good mom, that I had left him, that I didn't want him. And the first few months, he was misbehaving, and he was rebellious and resentful.

  • 12:35:36

    NNAMDIYou should know that that was a paraphrase of what Lela said, not a direct translation. One of the more striking things about what we've heard is that Lela's family back in El Salvador were telling her son that she had abandoned him. Does that part of the story surprise you, Ligia?

  • 12:35:52

    DIAZNo, it's very common. Not in every case, the family that is taking care of the child back home is very helpful. In some cases, they do a good job, but in some cases, they don't help build that relationship with the mother. In many cases, I have to say the family back home is struggling economically, so they rely heavily on the money that the family or the mother or the father can send from here to there. In many cases, I have heard that they don't want to let the child go, because it's a source of income for them. So, there are a lot of tensions between the caregiver and the actual mother or father that is here. And it takes some time to convince the caregivers to let the child come here.

  • 12:36:50

    NNAMDILet's hear about what happened after Lela and her son were reunited. What helped them to grow closer together?

  • 12:37:03

    DIAZShe remarried in 2014, and her husband helped her a lot in talking to the child, you know, to the reunifying child that came to join them. He was good at listening and asking them to have meals together and to talk over things. So, little by little, her son was opening up to her, but it took time.

  • 12:37:31

    NNAMDILela's new husband clearly was an important part of the rebuilding of their family. Is it common for parents to remarry, and is it also common for that factor to factor into reunifying their children? I can think of cases in which it can serve to make the children even more resentful, but go ahead, please.

  • 12:37:50

    DIAZYes. It's very common that they find new partners once they're here. And they go and live together and have more children. So, when the child comes here, there is not only that part of building the relationship with the father or mother that left them in the first place, but also, you know, reconnecting or getting to know the new parent and connecting and getting to know the new siblings.

  • 12:38:20

    DIAZOf course, in addition, they have to get used to the school system here, the language. And Fairfax County's such a good school system with high standards, that all these challenges, you know, are faced at the same time for the child that is coming here.

  • 12:38:40

    NNAMDIKatie, Lela and her son's story is hard to listen to. You might call it traumatic. What do we know about the effects of separation and then reunification on the growth and development of children?

  • 12:38:51

    KUENNENSure. Certainly, we know that the separation of a child and family, particularly prolonged separation, can be very traumatic. We are only starting, really, to see the beginning of the long-term impacts on the trauma of the forced separation of children and parents. With children that have been separated many times -- many years, rather, from their caregiver, there often are many steps that need to be taken to rebuild that relationship, as Ligia mentioned. And that includes reestablishing parental roles and authority figures within the home, building relationships with the family members and other new household members.

  • 12:39:28

    KUENNENAnd one of the key social service factors that we need to ensure is also making sure that children are connected with counseling and mental health supports to address that trauma piece, since it certainly can be very impactful, long term.

  • 12:39:41

    NNAMDISheila Gotti is an English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, teacher. You're on the flipside of all this, interacting mostly with the kids themselves. When did you become aware of family reunification as a challenge that many of your students face?

  • 12:39:56

    GOTTISo, I think as an ESOL teacher, something that we're always conscientious of is our students' backgrounds, where they're coming from. But I would say over the past few years -- mainly starting around 2013, 2014 -- we started seeing a pretty big increase of unaccompanied minors from Central America. And it just kind of got on the radar a little bit more for us to really try to make a concerted effort to meet the needs socially, emotionally and academically of these students.

  • 12:40:24

    NNAMDIWhat do students tell you about what's happening at home? What are some of the biggest challenges that you hear about?

  • 12:40:30

    GOTTIWell, I have students from all over the world, but when we're thinking of, you know, unaccompanied minors, mostly I see students from Central America, namely El Salvador and Honduras. And violence is a really big concern that a lot of them have experienced. There's a lot of gang activity. They recount, you know, trying to be recruited and, you know, kind of having to go to school with this worry of: am I going to be able to make it there safely and make it back home?

  • 12:40:59

    GOTTISo, when they come here and they see that, you know, our school system is a safe environment and we try to create a really welcoming and inclusive environment for them, it's something that's really different for a lot of these students to experience and adjust to.

  • 12:41:13

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that children might also be placed with relatives who are not their parents and who might not even be close family. What are some of the challenges there?

  • 12:41:22

    GOTTISo, we often find that students who are in a reunification situation, many times, the parents that are here and that have been here for a while are not familiar with the school system and the academic process. So, one of the first things that we try to do is bring in the parents for a conference, including the counselor at the school, and sometimes -- often, even -- we bring in the student to try to learn a little bit more about the student's educational background.

  • 12:41:49

    GOTTIOne of the challenges is that the parent that's been here doesn't always know the student's educational background. So, we have to often rely on what the student can tell us, as far as, you know, what their academic life was like, what classes, how they did, because the parent hasn't been there. And they don't always have that communication piece.

  • 12:42:09

    NNAMDIDo you see direct effects on the children's attention span and work in the classroom stemming from unsettled family relationships?

  • 12:42:21

    GOTTIYeah, absolutely. You know, when you're thinking about students in the classroom, all students come with, you know, a lot of life experiences that can be really different. So, we do see a lot of students who, you know, especially at the middle school level -- I teach 7th and 8th grade, and that's already a really volatile age. It's a very pivotal time for a child, and to have that piece added on top can be a really difficult adjustment to a new school system, rules, school hours. The length of the school day is often much longer here than what they had in their country.

  • 12:42:56

    GOTTISo, we try to do a lot of inclusive material, making sure that the students can, you know, see themselves reflected in the curriculum, reflected in the activities that we're doing, so that they feel invested in what they're learning.

  • 12:43:09

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Katie Kuennen, associate director of Children Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Ligia Diaz leads the immigrant family reunification program at Fairfax County Public Schools. And Sheila Gotti teaches English for speakers of other languages at Mark Twain Middle School in Fairfax County. Many migrant children are preteens or teenagers when they come to the U.S. Lela's son was 15 when he arrived in Virginia. In your experience, as a middle school teacher, is there something about that age group that makes all of this even harder?

  • 12:43:45

    GOTTIDefinitely. Just, you know, as I mentioned earlier, it's already such a difficult transition for students going from, you know, elementary school to middle or high school, and then to add on top of that the, you know, rigorous standards of Fairfax County Public Schools, language. You know, being put into content classes at grade level when their, you know, English language skills are often much farther below grade level. So, there are a lot of challenges.

  • 12:44:13

    NNAMDII was just reflecting that when I was that age, that's when I started pushing back against my parents, even though I'd been living with them all my life and was still living with them. And when my children were that age, that's when they started pushing back against me, under the same circumstances. (laugh) Have you had students whose parents have gone through the program that Ligia runs? Did you see a difference in your students as a result?

  • 12:44:34

    GOTTII have. In the past few years, I've had quite a few families that have gone through the program. I -- at least on the school side of things -- have seen really big changes in a lot of the children. Just for them having this adjustment of, you know, coming from home, the support that they, you know, are able to work on at home really, you know, feeds into what they're able to do at school.

  • 12:44:59

    GOTTIAnd, you know, research shows that students whose parents and families are invested into the school, it really builds a positive relationship for the student, the family and the school system for that student to feel more invested. So, I have seen a big difference over the past few years in families that I know have been through the program.

  • 12:45:19

    NNAMDILigia, in Fairfax County, what support is available to help students and parents navigate some of these issues?

  • 12:45:27

    DIAZYes. Like I was mentioning before, we have parent liaisons in almost every school. We have community liaisons in registration centers, where they start providing information to resources since the very first moment that they are, you know, registering their kids in school, and, of course, social workers and counselors. We also work very closely with other organizations and Fairfax County government to link them to outside of the school resources. In our program, per se, one of the topics that we cover is how to get help. You know, where are you going to get help? Do you need something else besides this class? Are you experiencing too many tensions at home?

  • 12:46:23

    DIAZWe have other classes that we offer in Fairfax. For example, Parent Project is especially designed to help parents that are dealing with out-of-control children. So, we recommend that they go to those other classes. We also partner with Edu-Futuro and SCAN of Northern Virginia, you know, to link them to resources that they offer through those organizations. So, we know that we cannot do it all, and that we have to work together.

  • 12:46:56

    DIAZI actually also -- we're very close with churches in the area, of different kinds. Sometimes I have families that would love to come to the class, but they cannot make it, because of transportation. So, we seek, you know, allies, and sometimes it's a church that can provide transportation. We do several things to make this happen. (laugh)

  • 12:47:19

    NNAMDIThe Immigrant Family Reunification Program is spreading beyond Fairfax County. You've been training people on the curriculum in other parts of our region, and even beyond. Katie, what do you know about other area school districts or local governments offering support for families who are recently reunified?

  • 12:47:37

    KUENNENSure. Absolutely. In addition to Fairfax County, we know that there's some great work being done in other area school districts, including Prince Georges County. And Maryland is doing a lot of great work. Anne Arundel County in Maryland, as well. And though I'm not as familiar with Montgomery County's work in this area, I know that they're also very invested in providing supports for reuniting families.

  • 12:48:00

    NNAMDILigia, you've run family strengthening programs in Central America, too, as part of an attempt to help stop violence in countries there. Are there common challenges that you see families facing in both places?

  • 12:48:12

    DIAZYes, yes. We receive here those families and those kids that I met over there that were already struggling that couldn't attend school. What we used to see or what we see still in Central America, because I go every year, is that the kids cannot go to school all the time. They have to stop going. Especially as soon as they hit their teenage years, they have to stop going because the (speaks foreign language) the gang is after them and is recruiting them.

  • 12:48:51

    DIAZIt becomes very dangerous to go to high school. The high schools are not as close to their neighborhood or to their homes. And they need to start working at early age in the field or in the market or in the family business to help the family.

  • 12:49:09

    NNAMDISheila, family reunification also comes up in how you approach parent-teacher conferences about recently arrived students. Often, you include the student in the conversation too. Why is that?

  • 12:49:21

    GOTTIWell, earlier I mentioned that, you know, many of the parents don't know their student's educational background, so we like to bring the student in. Sometimes they can give us more information. But another reason that we do that is to work together for the student and parent to be present together to come up with some strategies for success for the student at school.

  • 12:49:41

    GOTTISo, just bringing in that student, you know, usually halfway through, after we've had a chance to meet with the parent and the counselor, and then bringing the student into that discussion and really feel like their voice is being represented as well is an important part, especially when you're dealing with reunification situations where the student may be accustomed to speaking for themselves. So, just to add that in, so that they feel like they're a part of their own experience.

  • 12:50:07

    NNAMDIQuickly here, how do you help other kids, those who aren't dealing with these kinds of challenges to understand and perhaps even help and empathize with the student's arrival here?

  • 12:50:16

    GOTTIYeah, so we design a lot of lessons based around, you know, team-building and the students really understanding each other and where they're coming from. Often, they find that they have way more in common than they have that are different. For example, one of our -- you know, we've developed a curriculum for the U. S. History Class for beginning ESOL students, where we examine the Great Migration. And we look at Jacob Lawrence paintings. And then we go through a process of the students actually painting their own Great Migration canvas and sharing with the class. And they often find that they're coming from all these different situations around the world, and they have so much in common.

  • 12:50:56

    NNAMDISheila Gotti teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages at Mark Twain Middle School in Fairfax County. Ligia Diaz leads the Immigrant Family Reunification Program at Fairfax County Public Schools. And Katie Kuennen is associate director of Children Services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Thank you all for joining us. Today's show on family reunification was produced by Margaret Barthel. Our show on school rankings was produced by Cydney Grannan and Margaret Barthel.

  • 12:51:21

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, can extending kitchen hours be a good business practice for restaurants during the month of Ramadan? We'll look at a new initiative encouraging businesses to accommodate Muslims fasting during the holy month. Plus, we'll meet the DC band Oh He Dead who just performed at the Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival this weekend. Like many bands, they entered NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. We'll get a preview of their unique sound. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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