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Lutheran agency finds foster families for unaccompanied refugee minors

Three youth from overseas—Myanmar and Eritrea—resettled during July in Spokane as part of the new Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) Program of Lutheran Community Services (LCS).

Lisa Johnson and Shelly Hahn coordinate program for unaccompanied refugee minors

In September, a boy from Guatemala and a boy from Mexico came.  This fall, they hope to have a total of 10 youth placed in care and 30 by September 2017.

In 2016, Spokane joined 22 programs in 15 states offering Unaccompanied Refugee Minor foster care programs through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. 

According to Lisa Johnson, the foster parent recruiter, the United States is the only country that offers a program like this, in which “youth are removed from dangerous situations and placed in local foster homes where they can become productive members of society.”

Spokane Lutheran Community Services models their program after the URM program in the Seattle-Pacific area.

Although the URM program has existed since just after the Vietnam War, Seattle has been placing youth since the 1980s during the crisis in Sudan.

“We hope to mirror their program here,” said Shelly Hahn, director of the Child Welfare Programs at LCS in Spokane.

“Unaccompanied Refugee Minor” is a legal status of youth under the age of 18 who for various reasons are unable to return to their home countries (repatriate) and cannot stay in the country where they currently reside because of persecution.  Their status is different from an immigrant who just desires to move to a different country.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees attempts to find family and friends through various means, but if they are unsuccessful and a youth is not able to be resettled in the country where he or she resides, then the youth is given the opportunity to begin seeking the URM status.

“Sometimes the parents are found, but it is too dangerous for them to take the child back, so they sign papers relinquishing their rights, allowing their child to come permanently to the United States,” she said.  “These youth are between the ages of 12 and 17.  They have the opportunity to age out of care by 21.

“They have hopes and dreams that are unfulfilled in the midst of a refugee camp, and they need stable homes in the Spokane area,” she said.

LCS is recruiting foster parents who can provide a safe, supportive home environment that provides emotional support and long-term relationships.

Because the youth are coming from Central America and other areas of the world, Lisa said they want foster parents who are interested in other cultures, and willing and able to incorporate the youths’ cultures into their homes.

“There is a need for stability when people have no place to call home or belong,” said Lisa.  “A foundation of belonging is important.”

LCS has experience in and insights from placing domestic children in foster care.  It offers screening, training and support for families and youth.

It will offer parental support, including a 24-hour crisis line, a social worker to provide guidance through the legal and education systems, skill development, and counseling and psycho-pharmacology support as needed.

Lisa said the youth benefit from those services, as well as ongoing therapy with a LCS therapist, who has additional training in the specific traumas refugees experience.

“Trauma symptoms are the same across cultures: nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-agitation, seeing or hearing things that remind them of the traumatic event,” Shelly said. “The main difference between domestic and refugee trauma is the type of exposure they have had.”

The Lutheran Community Service Unaccompanied Refugee Minor team comes from various religious backgrounds.  It includes Lisa, who attends Real Life Ministries in Post Falls.

Each youth will have a social worker to help with appointments, documents and home visits.

Foster parents and program staff will work together to provide a safe haven for the youth.  Refugee youth receive support as they share about past trauma, learn English, gain an education and prepare for their future of independence.

Lisa has been with Lutheran Community Services in Spokane since December 2015.  For 10 years, she has been engaged with foster youth, both personally and professionally.

Over the last seven years, she has had a variety of youth in her home and adopted one.  She has also worked in the reunification process with families, facilitating family group decision-making meetings through the Department of Health and Welfare.

Lisa, who earned a bachelor’s in education in 1992 at the University of Idaho, taught for several years while studying social work at Eastern Washington University. 

Shelly, who has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana in 1999 and a master’s in education in 2003, has been with LCS since 2006, previously as a case manager.

Lisa said that the youth have to seek the status of unaccompanied refugee minor, and it’s a two- to four-year process to apply.

Shelly said all refugees accepted to come to the U.S. go through an intensive screening process that takes several years. She said that World Relief resettles those over 18.

Some of those who come will be from Eritrea, Burma/Myanmar, Congo, Central America and, eventually, Syria.

“Foster families come in many shapes and sizes,” said Lisa, who sees a variety of those interested in fostering the URM youth. 

“Often the parents interested are active in a faith community and have traveled overseas, but there are many whose children have left home, and the house now seems empty,” she said.  “Other families are looking for a way to enrich their already growing families with a youth from another country.”

“Religious conviction motivates many to help the poor,” said Lisa.

To help generate interest, Lutheran Community Services has informational meetings from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., on second Tuesdays each month at their building, 210 W. Sprague.

For information, call 343-5018 or email

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