Separation from family and our community this past year due to COVID-19 has inspired many of us to more greatly appreciate our loved ones as we reunite this summer. However, for the 14,400 children in U.S. government custody, isolation from family is one of the many hardships they have to face.

The already growing humanitarian crisis in Latin America has been made much worse by the pandemic. Circumstances like extreme poverty, trafficking and violence force children to flee. Through my work with Bethany Christian Services, I know that it is a life-or-death decision for many of these children.

While necessary to prevent children from spending more than a few days in holding centers run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, emergency intake sites – which have held tens of thousands of children this year – are not fit nor equipped to house children. Such emergency shelters are not state-licensed to care for children; the cold floors of military bases, warehouses and convention centers should not be the first “home” these children experience in our country.

Children need loving families. All children deserve to be treated with dignity and care. For unaccompanied children fleeing dire circumstances, this is true now more than ever. Just one example of these children is Christian, a young boy from Guatemala, who made the dangerous journey at just 6 years old.

Christian’s father had abandoned his family, and his mom had moved to the U.S. to send most of her earnings to the family that was caring for Christian. However, this family in return beat and abused Christian. To escape his abusive environment, Christian and his 16-year-old uncle made the 2,000-mile trek to the U.S.

Children like Christian need the kind of love and security a North Carolina family can offer them. Families in North Carolina are already stepping up to meet this need. Bethany has partnered with local families to our first Transitional Foster Care program in North Carolina this year. A stark contrast from institutionalized shelters, the TFC program pairs unaccompanied children with loving families who provide security and support until these children are securely reunited with their family in the U.S. During the 45 to 60 days that a child spends with a transitional foster family, Bethany works with families to help get children access to medical care, education, legal services and mental health services.

The need for families is always urgent.

Families who foster through TFC are also licensed to care for children in domestic foster care, something Bethany has been doing for several years in North Carolina. When our community steps up, we will have more than enough homes for the children who need them. A loving family can look different in every home: a single parent, retired couple, full-time worker or a married couple with children. For vulnerable children who have experienced trauma, a foster care parent can give them the warm welcome and security that they crave.

Foster care isn’t for everyone. But a heart for children, clothing, transportation, jobs and food are just a few of the things that you can help provide. Our TFC program in Charlotte is able to provide care for 26 children at one time, and local families can help these children experience the support, security and love that helps them thrive. A caring heart is all it takes to help make a difference in the lives of these children in need.

Terri Bowles is the state director of Bethany Christian Services of North Carolina. 

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