EAST LANSING, MI – Transitional foster care is a short-term program where families provide a home to unaccompanied migrant children who come across the border into the United States. It’s a temporary alternative to staying in a facility while the children wait to be reunited with their family already living here.
Chris Umphlett and his family are one of many across the country that participate in the transitional foster care program. Chris is a native of Gates County, but he and his wife Kristen and their four children currently reside in Michigan.
“We first learned about [the program] as an announcement at our church,” Kristen explained. “We kept learning more and more about the conditions at the border, and felt like this was a small way to make a big impact in at least one child’s life.”
Host families first have to get licensed to provide foster care, and the Umphletts began that process in 2019. The first foster child arrived at their house in March 2020.
“Right before the whole pandemic started,” Chris said, noting that the first child stayed with them a little longer than usual because of the circumstances.
Most children stay with a transitional foster family for only three or four weeks. But that length of time can vary depending on the child’s situation. The Umphletts have hosted three children so far for the usual month-long period along with a few other children who only needed to stay a day or two before heading to their destination.
The children in these programs are called “unaccompanied minors” because they cross the border without their parents, though not necessarily without adult supervision. After staying with a transitional foster family, the children then go to live with their sponsor, which is usually a family member who already lives in the United States.
“Being in a home with a family provides a sense of stability and warmth they wouldn’t get at a facility,” Kristen explained.
The kids are usually nervous and overwhelmed by the time they arrive at the Umphlett household. But Kristen said that she’s been impressed by how they quickly warm up to the family.
“Our kids are just ready to treat them like siblings,” Chris added.
Kristen said she appreciates that their kids connect with their temporary foster siblings right away. But at the same time, the situation is not always easy.
“It’s an adjustment for all of us,” Chris continued. “It’s somewhat time consuming in that everything takes longer, because we don’t speak very good Spanish. And they come not speaking any English.”
They usually start off with basic conversations through Google Translate, and plan fun activities—such as a trip to the zoo—which aren’t dependent on language to enjoy.
But despite the challenges of bringing a new child into the home for a short period of time, the family said the experience has been a beneficial one as well.
“It increased our faith,” Chris explained, noting that he’s prayed more than ever, especially as the pandemic made many parts of every day life more difficult.
He added that the experience has also helped himself and Kristen learn to communicate better, not only with the foster child but also with each other and their own children.
“It gave us opportunities to have tough but good conversations with our kids about being selfless and temporarily putting other people’s needs above their own, even when it wasn’t fun,” Chris continued.
Even though the Umphletts only house these children for a short amount of time, the positive impact will last much longer.