The Unaccompanied Children Program, Sheltered Hearts, of Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth began with its initial grant award in August 2019. From the outset, Berkshire leaders worked closely with ORR to develop all aspects of the program (administrative, programmatic, and financial) including preparing for admission of UC during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of the diligence of all, the program began admitting UC in November 2020, operating under the first grant award until October 2022. During that time, Sheltered Hearts served 922 UC, working to secure their safe and timely release. ORR awarded Berkshire a grant to continue and expand Sheltered Hearts for the 3-year period beginning November 1, 2022.
Sheltered Hearts provides safe and secure residential placement and services for UC referred through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The program serves youth, 12-17, who have no lawful immigration status and no parent or legal guardian available to assume their care and custody. Most are from Guatemala and Honduras, but the program is equipped to shelter any UC, regardless of country of origin, and has served UC from 16 different countries in Central and South America, Europe, and Africa. The length of time youth are in the program is dependent on individual circumstances, and the average is 17 days. The goals of Sheltered Hearts are to provide safe and secure shelter services for UC placed in the program; facilitate their safe and timely release to family members or appropriate sponsors; and prevent, detect, educate, and respond to sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and inappropriate sexual behaviors.
Sheltered Hearts provides intake and orientation, assessments, individual service plans, case management, counseling, medical and mental health services on-site and in the community, recreation and leisure activities, and educational services. Other services include transportation for off-site appointments; visitation and phone calls, including unrestricted access to attorneys; and nutritional services that accommodate dietary restrictions, allergies, cultural and religious requirements. Youth reside in cottages that provide a "home-like" environment and staff monitor the program at all times to ensure safety and security for all. The program also has a structured evaluation process for continuous program improvement to ensure the program operates at a high level at all times. All services are trauma-informed, culturally and linguistically sensitive, and responsive to the diversity of needs of all youth. For instance, with the increase of youth from other countries, the program has added translation devices that UC carry with they when they speak a language other than English or Spanish. The program complies with all federal, state and local laws and regulations, including those of ORR, ICE and Berkshire's state licensing agency, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
The bed capacity during the original grant period was 50 but ORR increased this capacity to 60 for this new grant period. This increase was in response to the program's success in implementing Sheltered Hearts and the program team's desire to support more youth. The Program Director and Leadership Team oversee all areas of program operations and work with all program staff to provide services and supports in pursuit of program goals. Staff members are bilingual in English and Spanish to be responsive to the linguistic needs of the majority of OC.
The program narrative details the accomplishments of Sheltered Hearts during this first year. With strong leadership and experienced program staff, the program is anticipated to continue to excel, working with UC toward their safe and timely release.