At least 5 unaccompanied immigrant children in East Tennessee region

At least 5 unaccompanied immigrant children in East Tennessee region

July 31st, 2014 by Yolanda Putman in Local Regional News

Bill Haslam

The mystery deepens. Or maybe it's not a mystery at all.

More than 760 unaccompanied immigrant children were sent to Tennessee after crossing the U.S. border in the past year or so with tens of thousands of others.

But only a handful of the 760 children can be accounted for.

One of them is in Chattanooga, according to Jennifer Cornwell, executive director of Bridge Refugee Services, which is headquartered in Knoxville and handles such services in East Tennessee.

Four of the unaccompanied children are in Loudon and Sevier counties near Knoxville, said Cornwell.

Another four are in Middle Tennessee, according to Kellye Branson, director of Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities of Tennessee Inc.

As for the rest, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition were among the state and national agencies that said they don't know where the children are.

Gov. Bill Haslam's office has sent a letter asking President Barack Obama for more information about the children coming into the state and their whereabouts. A number of lawmakers have done so as well.

"They're under my radar," Cornwell said of the remaining children. But that might not be unusual because, though the children arrived unaccompanied, they may know someone here.

"The vast majority of these kids are coming because they already know someone who is here, so they're not in foster care and things like that that people are worried about," said Cornwell.

Typically, unaccompanied children are placed in a shelter once arriving in the U.S.

There, Cornwell said, representatives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meet with the children and try to learn of family members they have in the United States. Those children are placed with their families. If a child comes without a family member, another sponsor often takes the child.

Family members can pick up the children directly from detention centers, so they don't always go through an agency, said Branson.

Cornwell said her agency doesn't get involved until the children are in the state and placed with a family member or sponsor. Then Bridge goes to the child to make sure he has the services needed and his living arrangements are safe.

Branson said Catholic Charities is called in to follow up on the care of a child if he or she has a mental health or a medical condition requiring continuing care.

Unaccompanied minors are undocumented, so they don't qualify for state health care or assistance like food stamps. It's up to family members or sponsors to provide health care, get them enrolled in school and meet their other needs, Cornwell said.

All of the children who have come to Southeast Tennessee have arrived within the past year, said Cornwell. The youngest unaccompanied child is age 4.

All of them have different stories. Some come for safety. Some have other reasons, said Cornwell.

Because of the hundreds of children reported in the state, Cornwell said she expects more children will wind up in Southeast Tennessee.

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepress.com or call 757-6431.