NORTHFIELD, N.J. — Bienvenidos A Juntos una gran familia.
Welcome to Juntos, a great family.
The chalk-on-pavement welcome is about the only indication that the former Atlantic County Youth Shelter is now home to Juntos, an expanding program in South Jersey that provides shelter to unaccompanied children who have crossed the southern border into the United States.
Run by the nonprofit Center for Family Services (CFS) and funded by the federal government, the Juntos (Spanish for together) program is also operating shelters in Woodbury and Burlington, in addition to the one in Northfield, which has been housing up to 20 unaccompanied migrant children for about six months, according to a local official.
CFS, based in Camden for 90 years, has seen a huge influx of federal grants for this program since 2017.
In 2019 alone, CFS has received $8 million in grants from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement for its Juntos residential shelter programs for what the government calls UAC, “unaccompanied alien children,” according to government data compiled online.
That’s an increase from the $4.9 million it received in 2018 and the $2.3 million it received in 2017 to fund its immigrant youth shelters.
In an email, Eileen Henderson, CFS chief operating officer, said the social service agency expanded its services in 2017 to include “children crossing the southern border and seeking asylum in the United States.”
That program, she said, has since provided a short-term home for more than 300 unaccompanied children, mostly teenagers.
Through a spokesperson, Henderson declined to specify locations of its Juntos shelters or answer questions about future expansion. She said 95 percent of those children have been reunited with a family member or sponsor.
In Egg Harbor Township, meanwhile, CFS is finishing up a playground behind its outpatient facilities, where the children will attend school six hours a day, according to a job description posted on its website.They are not attending local public schools while at the shelter, although once released to sponsors, they would be eligible to enroll, according to federal regulations.
Between October 2018 and July 2019, there were 3,644 unaccompanied children released to sponsors in New Jersey, including 56 in Atlantic County, 124 in Camden County, and 61 in Cumberland County, according to federal data. Federal law requires them to be held in “the least restrictive setting" until they can be united with family members.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said he approved the leasing of the Northfield space, a former county youth shelter located in the rear of a large complex of county offices.
Levinson described the shelter as “dormitory-like” with a nearby fenced-in basketball court and field (the basketball court is somewhat overgrown).
“The decision was a clear one as far as I was concerned,” said Levinson, a Republican. "There are circumstances where you have to step forward because you’re all human beings.
“These are kids that are basically from South America that have come into this county illegally,” he said. “What can you do? They’re here. They have no family with them. I don’t want them to be exploited."
He said the shelter has not posed any issues for local police and is not costing taxpayers. In fact, the county receives about $75,000 a year from CFS, for the lease, food services, and other related services. “Everything that should be done is being done,” he said. “These kids are generally very, very subdued. These kids are not criminals.”
“This is something that is a necessity,” he said. “I know there’s some counties saying not in this county. If not in this county, in what county?"
Still, the 20-bed shelter in Northfield, the presence of which has not been widely known, has raised some concerns.
Northfield resident Melanie Brososky said she was concerned about “the secretive nature of the entire thing" and worried about the teenagers’ emotional and physical well-being.
“We don’t want a migrant detention center in our town,” Brososky said. “We’re not a border state. Why do we have immigrant children being detained in our town? If this was the solution, why hasn’t it seen daylight?”
In Washington, D.C., last month, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said she would not allow a federal contractor that had received a $20 million grant to open a planned 200-bed shelter for unaccompanied immigrant children, saying she would not be "complicit in the inhumane practice of detaining migrant children in warehouses.”
A request by The Inquirer to tour the Atlantic County facility made to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, was denied.
Henderson, COO of the Center for Family Services, stressed the services made immediately available to the children, describing the work as “trauma informed." Children receive medical examinations and vaccinations, she said, plus counseling, education, recreation, and court accompaniment.
“We fully understand that these children have had tremendously difficult experiences before coming to us,” she said. Upon arrival, each child is assigned a bilingual caseworker to begin the unification process, she said.
The Juntos shelters are part of an expanding network of youth shelters nationwide, which Office of Refugee Resettlement says is a humane way to shelter the minors awaiting asylum applications, or en route to sponsors, usually relatives, living in the United States.
According to government data, in 2018, approximately 73% of the children referred were over 14, and over 71% were boys. They were mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
In May, ProPublica reported that a pediatrician who had treated children in the care of CFS described “lapses” in their care. It further documented minor violations cited by state inspectors.
Tammori Petty, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, said an evaluation of the Northfield property was completed on June 10 and “no violations were cited.”
She said the goal of the annual inspection is “to ensure that the shelter is providing services while temporarily providing housing in a homelike environment.”
"DCA also ensures fire safety, security, and that the facility is well-staffed,” she said.
The Juntos shelters are not regulated or licensed by the state child welfare agency, according to ProPublica. The federal government requires that providers comply with state residential care licensing regulations.
Petty said the Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards is currently regulating three CFS facilities providing services solely to unaccompanied migrant children.
As of Aug. 25, according to information on the Office of Refugee Resettlement website, there are approximately 7,000 unaccompanied minors in government custody. As of July, the length of care was 47 days, down from 93 days in November 2018, the website said.
CFS is looking for volunteers to provide community home shelters. According to its website, CFS provides up to 38 short-term shelter homes in the community for pregnant teens, sibling groups, or children under 12.
In July 2018, with concern over children being separated from families at the border, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D., N.J.) visited a CFS shelter in South Jersey after first being denied access for two weeks. He spoke to a teenager who had been separated from his family but concluded that the children were “in good hands," according to a news release issued after the tour.
Since then, the Juntos program, described as “quickly growing," has expanded, with more than a dozen job openings, including a bilingual head teacher for Egg Harbor Township.