Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Burundian Refugee Woman In Boise – Court Places Six Kids Into Adoption Proceedings

Posted by Christopher Coen on February 27, 2010

A Burundian refugee woman client of World Relief is the subject of a case in which a judge terminated her parental rights, and placed her six kids into adoption proceedings (here).

Members of a local World Relief-affiliated church, as well as its pastor, claim the woman’s home was not a safe place for her children. The Court, as well, would supposedly have had to see proof of serious abuse and/or neglect (Court records remain sealed). One claim was that she left the children home alone, but a World Relief-affiliated church previously moved her to a place outside Boise, where no one from her ethnic community lived. How would she have been able to, e.g. drag all six kids to the grocery store with her? (Did she leave them in the care of the oldest child? I’m speculating.) Yet, the refugee woman should have been able to show the Court some change or improvement — assisted by social services, classes in child care, mental health services, and/or other help. What happened?

Well, they placed this refugee woman in psycho-social rehabilitation sessions at Mountain States Group in Boise, which works with many refugees (via its EMM-affiliated Agency for New Americans), yet these sessions took place mostly without interpreters, through pantomime. (The woman speaks Kirundi, the national language of Burundi). Pantomime, obviously, would have been useless.

“….at least two federal civil-rights complaints [have been filed] against Idaho health providers for failure to provide adequate interpretation, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is investigating….If those charges are substantiated, they could call into question the validity of her psychological diagnoses and land the case in federal court.Health and Welfare’s Bureau of Facility Standards has already agreed that Niyonzima received inadequate help from interpreters at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and the agency’s Medicaid certification bureau reported to McMillan that psycho-social rehabilitation sessions at Mountain States Group, which provides services to many refugees in Boise, were done in large part without interpreters, through pantomime. Staff at St. Al’s even remarked to the Health and Welfare reviewer that Niyonzima reported hallucinations–at the urging of her church friends–but when an interpreter was eventually called in, it turned out she was complaining of nightmares.

The psycho-social rehabilitation sessions may also have prevented her from visitation with her children while they remained in foster-care. Federal child welfare laws call for termination of parental rights if the children have remained in foster care for 15 out of any 22 consecutive months.

Kathy Tidwell, director at the Child Welfare Center at Boise State’s School of Social Work and founder of Tidwell Social Work Services, which works with Boise’s growing refugee community, said that federal child welfare laws provide strict time limits for terminating parental rights. If children are in foster care for 15 out of 22 months, the case goes to termination. “For many refugees who come here not speaking English, who come as women from countries where the expectations of women are very different, who have trauma histories … 15 months may not be enough time,” she said.

How would this refugee woman have been able to resolve the problems she was having in 22 months if she was receiving incompetent mental health care, and/or was misdiagnosed, and/or if she didn’t even need mental health care?

The question is, why wasn’t World Relief helping to make sure this woman was receiving responsible health care and mental health services? If they had simply monitored her case, they could have identified problems and contacted hospital and mental health services administrators to advocate for proper interpretation services. They also could have monitored the legal proceedings to make sure this refugee woman received competent legal representation. Why did it take someone from a non-World Relief-affiliated church, who met her randomly by just knocking on doors, to step in and help this woman?

The resettlement agencies who give the resettlement program a bad name always say that they are not responsible for refugees after their first 3 months, 4, months, 6 months, or 8 months (take your pick), but the reality is that the resettlement agencies are supposedly the local refugee experts, and after all, they are the ones who resettled her to the area claiming it was an appropriate resettlement site. They should catch these cases where circumstances leave their former refugee clients vulnerable.

The state refugee coordinator is also there to watch what is happening to refugees in the state (in this case Jan Reeves came in the revolving door via Mountain States Group, Inc.). State officials have the power to go into agencies and view their records to find out what is happening to refugees. They can also interview refugees with an interpreter if necessary to find out directly the problems the refugee is experiencing, and not just rely on occasionally looking at agencies’ records and only speaking to resettlement agency staff members.

This case reminds me of the Liberian teenager in Fargo who was meanly mislabeled as aggressive, crazy, and low-intelligence simply because no one bothered to find competent interpretation services for her (see our post here).

By the way, the Burundian refugee woman in Boise should not have lived with church members after initially arriving in Boise. The State Department’s Admissions Office has repeatedly warned World Relief affiliates (here, here and here) that this practice is prohibited. Of course the State Department’s warnings to resettlement agencies, and other slaps on the wrist, have long been ineffective. Most resettlement agencies just do as they wish as there are no real consequences to breaking contract requirements and regulations. Certainly there are no monetary consequences.

Finally, I would like to point out the accountability-shifting in this case that is so rampant in refugee resettlement. In this case the World Relief-affiliated church (a member of the church who was a World Relief volunteer brought the refugee to the church) that worked with this refugee woman claims that their church took no actions; that it was people in the church operating under their own volition.

At [Common Ground Covenant Church in Meridian] –a small evangelical church …several other families, including the pastor, Tom Bowen, began to assist Niyonzima as well….the pastor and three women from the church came to her house and asked her how they could help……..Pastor Bowen said..”[Niyonzima] had approached our church in helping with her kids, and then when she had asked us to no longer do that, we really weren’t involved,”…stressing that it was individuals from the church, not Common Ground, providing the assistance.

But is that really the case since even the church’s pastor was involved? A bigger problem is the resettlement agencies who always blame government oversight agencies. Then we have the State Department that won’t investigate these cases. They claim that we should report problem cases to the VOLAGS or to the state refugee coordinators. Yet, state refugee coordinators in turn tell us that they don’t have to answer to anyone but their governors, the federal oversight agencies, etc. Other state refugee coordinators tell us that we should not ask them to investigate problems, that instead we should ask the board of directors of refugee resettlement agencies to investigate.

So where does the buck ever stop? It seems like just a few people accept accountability in the refugee resettlement field. It is always the responsibility of someone else. This problem is the result of a culture of non-accountability, which I believe is systemic in refugee resettlement. It must change.

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2 Responses to “Burundian Refugee Woman In Boise – Court Places Six Kids Into Adoption Proceedings”

  1. [...] I see that Friends of Refugees has additional comments on this story, here. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Tent cities coming to a neighborhood near [...]

  2. [...] receiving mental health services in pantomime, without an interpreter, at Mountain States Group here (the Agency for New Americans is a part of Mountain States [...]

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