On a hot Maryland summer day, two toddlers play in the wading area of a community pool. Their glee is uncontainable as they dump water-filled plastic pails over each other's heads. A few weeks earlier, these little ones would not come close to the water.
"When they both came, they were terrified of the pool," says their foster mother Christi. "Terrified. And now we kind of have to stay in this pool because she will jump head first into the big pool."
Christi is not a typical foster mother. She takes in migrant children from Central America who have been separated from their families at the border. Due to federal rules, NPR is unable to identify the names of the children in Christi's care and is only using her first name.
In the last two and a half years, Christi has fostered dozens of migrant children, while she and her husband balance their jobs and raise their own children. Her family recently moved to a larger house to provide more space for the foster kids.
She is paired with kids through Bethany Christian Services, one of many nonprofits that contracts with the government to place unaccompanied minors.
"Our conviction for [taking in migrant children] has only gotten stronger as time goes on." Christi says. "Any kid that's in my house is, at least while they're here, safe. I know that they're safe, I know that they're loved, I know that they're cared for."
Other organizations, like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and Catholic Charities serve as intermediaries that offer an alternative to large border facilities. Around 550 children have been placed in transitional foster care this year.
The children who qualify for this type of care are typically more in need, like toddlers, sick children or teenage moms.
When an unaccompanied minor enters the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents detain them. They are then referred to a temporary home which can be a shelter or a transitional foster home.
"We knew that there had to be an alternative to some of these massive influx facilities that have received a lot of tension, rightfully so in the news ... and so we realized that if we could provide a familial setting like foster care, we call transitional foster care, that that it would be a far better solution, particularly at the end of these perilous, very traumatic journeys for so many of these children," says Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, or LIRS, one of the organizations that provides family care to migrant children.
While in transitional foster care, LIRS seeks to reach out to the child's family member in the United States to reunify them with a caretaker.
Agencies around the country seek out sponsors of all backgrounds who have gone through a training and licensing program. Speaking Spanish is a plus, as many of the children come from Central America, but is not required.
Christi has learned some Spanish to help communicate with her foster children. They call her "mamá."
"I can feel it in my chest, it's palpable, I feel it – the weight of it," Christi says, describing the responsibility of assuming motherhood for foster children. "Not just the kids coming in and out and falling in love with kids that walk out your door that you may never see again. That part is hard. But it's just when I see these babies, I see their moms and they're not with them, they're with me."
When it's time to say goodbye, parting ways is challenging. At LIRS, children typically stay with their foster parents for one to two months. Many of the kids cry when they leave.
"I had to pry a little girl like I had to walk her to the plane door to get her on the airplane because she was clinging to me and I knew that once she got reunited, it would be good," Christi says. "It's just that transition. It's scary and it's hard and they've been through a really bad transition already."