Amy Jo Cousins: Help Provide Child Advocates

And now, a note from author Amy Jo Cousins —

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At one table sits a government lawyer. At the other table sits a child.

The child could be twelve years old. Or seventeen. Or three. She’s been given a “Know Your Rights” presentation by an attorney at the shelter where she is being detained. It may or may not have been in a language she speaks. She made her way to the United States by herself, or she was taken from a parent at the border. And now she is representing herself in immigration court in front of a judge who will determine her future.

This is our immigration system.

In every state and territory in the United States, when decisions are made regarding a child’s custody and care in the child welfare system, there are statutes that require we consider the child’s best interests, that we care about their safety and well-being.

In the immigration system? Judges are not required to consider the best interests of the child before deporting her to the country she fled. When that twelve-year-old girl represents herself in immigration court against a government attorney—whether she’s asking to be sent back to her home country or to stay in the U.S.—the judge is not required to consider where she will be safe, whether or not she will thrive, or even survive.

The immigration system is incredibly complicated and adversarial and humiliating. It turns you into a number on a case file. It doesn’t know that you’re a girl whose favorite possession is the big white bow you wear in your hair, that you’re a boy with scars under his shirt, that you make bracelets for all the kids in the shelter, that people came into your house and “disappeared” your father, that you’re going to be a soccer star when you grow up, that your house was burned down because your neighbors hate your religion, that you miss your mom and want to go home.

At the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, we provide independent Child Advocates for kids in detention. Our Child Advocates take the most complicated cases. They represent the most vulnerable children. Our job is to hear their stories, to learn about their families and home countries and individual needs, to KNOW them and to ensure everyone involved in the process is prioritizing the child’s best interests at all times. And we follow up after their release from detention to make sure they continue to have access to educational, social, medical, and legal services. A Child Advocate is a lifeline for a child in detention.

When we talk about working with the children in detention, it’s never easy or simple, because they’re not case numbers. They’re children, kids with fears and hopes and needs, and every last one of them deserves to be recognized. A Child Advocate makes sure everyone in the system knows who their child is as a real person. That’s the job. Child Advocates force decisionmakers to see children as children in a system that wants to process them like a number.

Here’s a thing I learned during my first week at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights: it costs $3,700 to recruit and train a single Child Advocate volunteer. The Young Center takes its responsibilities seriously when it comes to background checks and training for an adult they will introduce to a child and who will advocate for that particular child for months or years.

Right now, our amazing matching challenge sponsors have offered to match up to $50,000 in donations to the Young Center. That means we could raise $100,000 this week. You know what I see when I look at $100,000? 27 new Child Advocate volunteers, each one of whom will end up working with more than one child in time. That’s DOZENS of children getting the ally they need to make sure the system sees them.

A five-year-old girl who wakes up every night in the shelter with nightmares. A six-year-old boy who has stopped speaking. A fourteen-year-old boy who was labor trafficked from China. A sixteen-year-old girl who arrived with her toddler in tow and another baby on the way.

All of these children need Child Advocates. That ally who learns their story, who sits with them in court and helps them not be scared, who makes sure everyone in the system knows what makes that kid unique. Because we should treat children like children, like they matter.

Donate to the #YCChallenge through Wednesday (11/7) and help another kiddo in detention get a Child Advocate. Your donation will be doubled by the matching challenge, plus, you’ll be entered in the lottery to win some amazing prizes, like tickets to a live filming of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, autographed copies of the Inkheart Trilogy, Star Wars memorabilia, or a personal tour of Intelligentsia’s Chicago Roasting Works.

You can do two amazing things today: vote and support the Young Center. Thank you for bringing your compassion to the fight in both arenas. Thank you.