Amid Chaos, Bethany Christian Services Raises Money Off Child Separations

Email and phone records between Bethany Christian Services and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights reveal disarray in handling of separated children.

[Photo: A child sits in his parent's lap]
The disarray persists, even as the administration faces a federal court deadline Tuesday to reunite families with children scattered nationwide. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Migrant children in Michigan who have been separated from their parents by the Trump administration are attending “a special school” run by Bethany Christian Services, an anti-choice organization with a record of coercive adoption practices that has yet to receive instructions about how to reunify these children with their detained parents.

“We’re not real sure yet exactly how they’re going to work with parents who are detained,” Dona Abbott, Bethany’s branch director for refugee services, told Rewire.News in an interview Thursday. “We’re still waiting for detailed direction from [the Department of Health and Human Services] about how kids and when kids will be reunified.”

Records of emails and phone conversations between Abbott and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, obtained by Rewire.News, provide a window into the chaos surrounding the family separation policy and tensions between Bethany and the state. The disarray persists, even as the administration faces a federal court deadline Tuesday to reunite families with children scattered nationwide.

“Processing is ‘disorganizing’ … ‘disorganized,'” the department’s director, Agustin V. Arbulu, scribbled in handwritten notes dated June 21, adding that connecting separated children with parents could take “up to 30 plus days.”

“No direction from HHS,” he wrote.

Abbott said Thursday Bethany has placed about a third of the separated children across its network with “sponsors,” who are often family members. She refused to say how many children that is, calling the number a “moving target.” Media reports said Bethany was caring for as many as 58 separated children in the state.

With an annual revenue of $98 million, much of it from government contracts, Bethany is one of the nation’s largest adoption agencies. While criticizing the Trump administration’s family separation policy, the agency has also used it for fundraising. On Thursday, Bethany advertised matching donations on a section of its website that reads: “Separated from Parents: Children Need You.” A public relations firm representing Bethany said the money is being used for children’s needs, “post reunification services,” transportation to reunite children, “volunteer services,” and “recruitment, licensing and training of new foster parents.”

The emails provide insight into how Bethany reacted to news reports about the crisis.

“I am deeply disappointed in what the article says came from your office,” Abbott wrote in an email to Arbulu on June 27.

Pasted in the email was an article from a Detroit TV station noting the links between Bethany and the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose cousin by marriage served as senior vice president of Bethany and whose family foundation has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization. (The public relations firm representing Bethany said Brian DeVos left the agency this year “to pursue other interests.”)

Abbott accused Arbulu’s office of leaking “confidential” information about how some migrant boys have been placed with Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.

“It gives a potential location of children,” Abbott wrote to Arbulu. “These are not even children related to the separation issue.”

“I feel my trust was violated,” she wrote.

Arbulu wrote back that there had been no indication the information was confidential.

“It is information that I believe was being openly discussed and already in the possession of the media,” Arbulu wrote to Rewire.News Friday.

The dispute speaks to tensions around the dearth of public information about migrants in the custody of the Trump administration, which has restricted access to facilities where they are held. Abbott argued for concealing such information for children’s safety.

“I would not want the location of any child published in any story,” Abbott told Rewire.News Thursday. “There are predators out there who, if they thought a child was vulnerable for some reason, would use that vulnerability to get access and harm a child.”

Concerns About Adoption

Amid the disorder surrounding the family separations, advocates have raised concerns that children who cannot be reunited with parents may be placed for adoption by agencies like Bethany. Bethany is an anti-choice organization with more than 100 locations worldwide that has gone to great lengths to dissuade people from seeking abortion, including hiring a firm to target patient’s smartphones with Bethany ads while they sit in Planned Parenthood clinics. Parents have reported Bethany counselors pressuring them to give their babies up for adoption through the agency.

On June 20, when protesters converged on Bethany to accuse the agency of profiting off the separation of families, Abbott told Fox 17 West Michigan, “It’s so early on to say whether these children will be available for adoption at all.”

“When I said too early, I just meant I just can’t imagine,” Abbott told Rewire.News. “We’ve had over 500 reunifications [in Michigan]. None of them have had to go to adoption while the child is in federal custody. I’m not even sure how you would do it when the child’s in federal custody, quite honestly.”

In a follow-up email, the public relations firm Lambert Edwards and Associates said, “under no circumstances does [Bethany] pressure people to give up their pregnancies for adoption.”

News reports have largely overlooked this history and other aspects of Bethany’s record, including a lawsuit in Michigan accusing the organization of rejecting same-sex couples who want to foster or adopt. When Rewire.News asked Abbott about this policy on Thursday, a Lambert representative cut in, calling the question irrelevant. Abbott refused to answer. In a follow-up email, Rewire.News asked again about the policy, and the Lambert representative deflected, writing, “Children in Bethany’s transitional foster care program are not placed for adoption.”

Rewire.News asked Abbott how the agency would handle abortion or contraception access for girls in its care, who are as old as 12, according to Abbott. Abbott said Bethany would turn to HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is run by anti-choice radical Scott Lloyd. Lloyd has forced shelters to confirm pregnant minors in ORR custody would receive anti-abortion counseling as a condition of their release. A court has halted his policy allowing shelters to block access to abortion.

“We would ask ORR for medical services and refer them to a physician for health care and ask ORR that they be referred for health care,” Abbott said. “We just don’t have any 12-year-old girls who are pregnant or are asking for contraception. Sorry, I don’t know how to answer that question.”

Abbott also declined to say whether any of the youth in Bethany’s care have disabilities, citing the need to protect confidentiality. Arbulu wrote to Abbott on June 20 that he was “concerned about the chance there may be immigrant parents who may have children with disabilities,” scribbling in handwritten notes on June 21: “Deaf child accepted by Bethany.”

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell visited a Bethany facility Thursday and told the Detroit Free Press that a blind 12-year-old girl was among those in the agency’s care.

Segregated From Public Schools

Bethany’s religious affiliation concerns advocates, in part because the agency is in charge of educating the separated children in its care, who attend “a special school” that is “segregated from the public schools,” according to Arbulu’s notes.

“They don’t go to school. Rather, they go to a special school,” Arbulu wrote. “Rent a classroom + go 6 hrs of instruction, M-F.”

Abbott said the teachers are “trauma-informed” Bethany employees with teaching degrees.

“‘School’ may be a broad term,” Abbott told Rewire.News. “We have a curriculum we go through with the kids so that we can begin to assess their educational level.”

She said religious instruction is not part of that curriculum.

Susan Hays, an attorney who has worked closely with with young people in federal custody, said she was astonished to learn from Rewire.News that the migrant children separated from their families and under Bethany’s care in Michigan were not being sent to public school. She said there can be reasons for this approach in individual cases: because the child’s living situation is known to be very temporary or it could further their trauma because of the possibility of a “cultural disconnect” at school. But, she said, there was “no good reason” to segregate dozens of children in Bethany’s care.

“Why the hell would you do that? Special schools to be taught what and by whom?” Hays said. “Why would you not get kids in a professional education system, like their local schools, as quickly as possible?”

The public relations firm representing Bethany said children are not enlisted in public schools because “they are with us for such a short amount of time” and a “wrap-around style of care is best for these children.”

Part of the problem, Hays said, is that migrant children separated from their parents at the border are not provided with legal counsel or guardians ad litem, which is a person the court appoints to advocate for the child.

“These kids should have [ad litems] because if they did, their ad litem would be asking questions about the education they are accessing. [Bethany] contracts with the federal government. They don’t want to piss off the people writing their checks, so there is no one in this system who has access to the children who [is] advocating for the children,” Hays said.

“I Think Our Government Has Gotten the Message”  

The emails obtained by Rewire.News show that while Bethany has publicly criticized the Trump administration’s family separation policy, Abbott privately criticized the tactics of some protesters and advocated giving the government time to reunite the families.

“I want to be very cautious,” Abbott wrote to Arbulu on June 24. “Seeing on the news the bus of children being mobbed by those against separation was horrifying to see. Those poor children, how frightening. How could they really understand and absorb the intention of those around them.”

Abbott said she was referring to video footage of protesters in Texas and Hempstead, Florida. In McAllen, Texas, on June 23, protesters briefly blocked a bus, waving at the children on board and chanting, “We see you, we love you,” in Spanish and English, and “Set the children free.”

“Even if they think that they’re sending a message that they’re there for the child, children—very young children in particular—can’t interpret that,” Abbott told Rewire.News. “Many of the children we work with, refugee and immigrant children, come from countries where when people gather in that way, it does not mean safety to them.”

In her email on June 24, Abbott appeared to urge Arbulu to temper his criticism of the government, after he publicly denounced the “nightmare” situation facing separated children as young as three months old, including the apparent lack of a federal database for tracking information among agencies.

“I think our Government has gotten the message,” Abbott wrote, four days after Trump signed an executive order halting the separations.”Let’s give them a chance to fix the error. To prepare for reunification. This needs to happen in a planned and caring way to avoid another trauma. At this time, I believe it will happen.”

Abbott told Rewire.News she was not trying to get Arbulu to tone down his message. But that’s how Arbulu seemed to interpret her email.

“Your points are well taken,” he wrote. “I have consistently mentioned to media that based on what you have told me, Bethany Christian Services is doing everything they can in reconnecting separated children with parents. But as you have been telling me this has been an inefficient process.”

Abbott concluded her email to Arbulu by asking him to “remind people these are children and they should always be surrounded by calm, rational and caring adults who listen to them and support them.”

As a way of “practicing what Iam [sic] preaching,” Abbott said she was going to “remain silent with media.”