Dek: Early childhood programs need funding and flexibility to address the trauma and housing instability of migrant families.

By Leo Ortega

Every day, the ongoing migrant crisis in Chicago presents new challenges to those of us who work directly with families in need. Whether we offer housing assistance or early childhood care and education, many of us are asking: How do we balance the immediate needs of our new neighbors with the existing needs of our communities? And where do migrant families fit into our definition of the place we call home?

For 51 years El Hogar Del Niño, now part of the organization Brightpoint, has offered early childhood care and educational services that support parents and young children in Pilsen and Little Village. We also offer home-based visits for expectant parents and children from birth through age three. These home visits make it easier for parents and children to access services without having to figure out transportation and travel times. Using a “Parents as Teachers” model, our social workers support parents with everything from prenatal education to building parenting skills. We help parents access services like SNAP, Medicaid, and provide early childhood screenings to ensure infants and young children are meeting developmental milestones, because we know that early intervention is key to helping children thrive going forward. If we identify a developmental delay or disability, we help a family get support that meets their child’s specific needs.

We have found that when our children at El Hogar transition from pre-K to kindergarten, they are able to hit the ground running. We know that the work we do helps children thrive, but El Hogar has a waitlist that only opens a few weeks each year. Without the ability to expand and hire more staff, we can’t serve every family who comes to us for help. This was true before the migrant crisis, but the arrival of families on busloads each day has vastly increased the need for our services.

After the trauma of a long and uncertain journey, migrant parents with infants and young children arrive in Chicago with an extra burden of immediate needs, with few possessions and no immediate housing options. Even if they’d arrived when our waitlist was open, the need has tripled just within the last few weeks, so we have no way to help them. We have dozens of migrant families on our waitlist, and nearly 30 other migrant families we started working with have since relocated. It’s highly likely that those families will have to begin the early intervention process all over again, which will delay getting the critical help their children need at an early age.

We don’t have an end in sight to the current migrant crisis. We will all need to get creative about how we expand our services to include newly arriving families. By redefining what “home” means, community providers like El Hogar can offer home visit services at a library, at a police station or at a temporary shelter. Social workers can assess an infant or young child quickly and help their parents apply for the services they need. Our home visiting staff can regularly meet with families, creating the start of a community for these parents and giving them hope that even in the face of great trauma, they can nurture their children.  By meeting families where they are we can remove barriers to accessing essential social services for our most vulnerable families.

Migrant families want what every family wants: Access to quality early childhood care and education that can meet their children’s unique needs. What would help the most is to expand the services that organizations like ours provide through plans like Governor Pritzker’s Smart Start Illinois, which can provide much-needed funding for early childhood care and education to families who need them the most. If the city also expanded early childhood care and education funding specifically for migrant families, we’d have a chance to help these children get the resources they need right away. We could also continue supporting families in our community who were awaiting services before the migrant crisis.

Now is the time to expand and coordinate regional and community-based programs. We need to treat newly arriving families—our new neighbors—who need fast, intensive support as they stabilize and start to create a home for their children. And if we can connect that care to a well-funded network of other social service providers that can help families access housing, food and employment, we won’t need to turn families away or see children lose access to services because their parents were relocated in the middle of a crisis.

Leo Ortega is the Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment, and Attendance Manager at El Hogar De Niño, now affiliated with Brightpoint, a statewide child and family service provider. He helps recruit and enroll parents for center- and home-based Early Head Start and Head Start programs.