The girl, who was separated from her mother at the border, arrived in Maryland nearly three weeks ago late in the night. She stepped off the long flight carrying a blue-gowned Elsa doll and an expectation that she would see her mother. When she realized she wouldn’t, she cried.
“She was very scared,” said her foster mother, who asked not to be identified to protect the whereabouts of the children in her home. The girl wore a pull-up diaper that night, likely put on her for the unpredictable trip across the border, and for days she refused to go without one, as if taking it off meant accepting that the journey was over, the woman recalled.
“My mommy said I need to wear these,” the girl explained to her in Spanish.
At the foster home, the girl has a room with giraffes and hot-air balloons on the walls. A polka-dot comforter covers her bed and she keeps Elsa there, next to the heart pillow and a stuffed rabbit she was given when she arrived in the state. At bedtime, she says goodnight to each.
“Buenos noches, conejo.” “Buenos noches, corazón.” “Buenos noches, Elsa.”
The sweet gesture comes at the hardest time of the day for the girl — and for many of the immigrant children who have come through the same home. More than 30 children have stayed there since August. Among them was a 3-year-old boy who screamed out in the night and a teenager who asked for the lights to be left on while she slept.
“I really miss my mom. I want to go with my mom,” the girl says each night, her foster mother said. “I’ll say, ‘I know you really do. I know you miss your mom, but you’re here, you’re safe.’ ”
There is an urge to call the girl lucky. Some of the disturbing pictures that have emerged during the six weeks the Trump administration enforced separating families at the border before ending the practice this week show brown-skinned children clutching foil blankets in chain-linked cages. One of the most chilling photos shows a boy staring with terror-stricken eyes illuminated by a light from Border Patrol agents.
But Tawnya Brown paused at the word “lucky” when discussing the 5-year-old girl Thursday. She called her situation instead “the best-case scenario.”
Brown is the executive director of the Maryland/D.C. branch of Bethany Christian Services, the organization which placed the girl in the foster home. Of the 16 immigrant children the group houses in Maryland — which is the maximum they can place — 10 of those children were separated from family members.
But all of them, whether they arrived alone or were pulled from family members, carry “significant” trauma, Brown said.
An additional challenge with the children who have been separated, she said, comes with trying to connect them to relatives because they don’t always carry names and phone numbers, and many aren’t old enough to have those memorized. The 5-year-old girl, who has since spoken to her mom, arrived without being able to tell social workers her mother’s full name or the name of her aunt who lives in the United States.
“It’s almost like digging for a penny in a sandpit,” Brown said. “You just keep digging and sand keeps falling and you keep digging.”
The Trump administration has not addressed plans for reunifying children with their parents, and reports have emerged of parents being told nothing about where their children are taken. Among the children who have landed in shelters was a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome whose father was a legal U.S. resident.
In the Maryland house where the 5-year-old is staying, the oldest of the three siblings, a
15-year-old boy, tries to show a brave front for his 8-year-old brother and 2-year-old sister, their foster mother said.
“The reason I joined this program wholeheartedly is because I am a mom,” she said. “I can’t imagine, and I’m so lucky that I don’t have to imagine, and I didn’t do anything to not have to imagine, I was just born here, what it would be like to have this happen to my family, to my children.”
Many of the children are with her for weeks or a few months and in that time, she said, she tries to do what their mothers would.
“I will kiss their booboos,” she said. “I will make sure they are learning.”
When she met the siblings, they were exhausted, but then they noticed frogs in her back yard and started chasing them. Soon bits of their personalities emerged. At Target, the 2-year-old begged for a Peppa Pig dress. The 15-year-old has lately been helping her husband build a larger dining room table out of wood.
The 8-year-old, she said, has taken the separation the hardest. When he was first able to talk to his mother, he would put the phone on speaker and walk around with her on the other line for an hour or more.
He found comfort, she said, “just knowing his mom was there.”
The 5-year-old girl for a while did not want to be left alone. She followed her foster mother everywhere, running errands with her. Now, she has become more comfortable being left behind.
Even so, because 5-year-olds don’t always have a strong sense of time, she often declares that tomorrow is the day she reunites with her mom.
“I’m leaving tomorrow,” she says. “I’m going with my mom tomorrow.”
“Very soon,” her host mother usually responds, “Very soon.”
The Trump administration has taken first steps away from this policy, but an important question remains: What will happen to the children who came during those six shameful weeks?
We know that at least one of them will end her day saying, “Goodnight, rabbit,” “Goodnight, heart,” Goodnight, Elsa,” in a home where she has comfort but not her mom.