Final Report of the Descriptive Study of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program: Service Provision, Trends, and Evaluation Recommendations

Publication Date: July 2, 2021
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  • Pages: 68
  • Published: 2021


Research Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of populations served by the URM Program and how are services for each target population implemented?
  2. What do we know about how different URM programs administer benefits and services for refugee youth?
  3. What data are currently collected for the URM Program and what do they tell us about the extent that URMs achieve self-sufficiency?
  4. What would be the best evaluation design strategies for learning more about the effectiveness of the URM Program?

The Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) Program provides child welfare services and benefits to refugee youth and other eligible youth within the United States who do not have a parent or relative available to care for them. URM programs are expected to provide the same range of services to URM youth as are provided to youth in the domestic foster care system in the state in which they operate. URM programs provide out-of-home placements (e.g., foster care, group homes) and other child welfare services to promote youth’s well-being. The URM Program also provides services related to integrating the youth into their new communities while preserving the youth’s cultural, ethnic, and religious heritage.

The Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families awarded MEF Associates and its subcontractor, Child Trends, a contract to conduct a descriptive study of the URM Program to better understand the range of child welfare services and benefits provided through the URM Program. This report summarizes findings from the study and offers recommendations for future evaluations. The report includes information on the characteristics of youth in the URM Program; the services local URM programs offered and provided to youth; innovative practices, successes, and lessons learned in serving URM youth; and available data on URM youth’s experiences and outcomes. This final report summarizes the study’s key findings and presents recommendations for the design of a future evaluation of the URM Program.


The Descriptive Study of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program aims to better understand the range of child welfare services and benefits provided through individual URM programs. This study also aims to lay the foundation for future evaluations of the URM Program. These findings are most relevant to those involved in operating the URM Program and providing services to URM youth, but may also be of interest to those who serve other youth who are recent immigrants or refugees.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • The number of youth entering the URM Program declined in recent years and changed in composition. The number of youth entering the Program declined from fiscal year (FY) 2014 to FY 2018. The percentage of those entering who fall into the legal category of victims of trafficking increased, while the percentage of youth entering as refugees decreased. In FY 2018, roughly one third of youth entering the program were refugees, one third had Special Immigrant Juvenile classification, and one third were victims of trafficking.
  • URM youth enter the URM Program with diverse strengths and needs. Program staff and foster families describe youth as resilient, goal-oriented, hardworking, and committed to their families, friends, and communities. Key needs upon arrival include education and English Language support, physical and mental health services, and immigration status support. Local URM programs provide services and/or build partnerships with external providers to address these needs and help youth achieve their goals.
  • All local URM programs offer a comprehensive set of services to youth, either internally, through external partners, or both. These services include out-of-home placements, case management, physical and mental health services, education support, and services to support a successful transition to adulthood. However, there is variation in how programs actually provide services to youth due to differences between programs, in state and local context and policies, and the characteristics of youth served. The Program’s model also tailors services to individual youth, so youth experiences in the Program vary depending on their strengths, needs, and past experiences (including their pathway into the URM Program).
  • The URM Program aims to help youth maintain connections to their cultural, ethnic, and religious heritage, if youth desire, both formally and informally. Success in maintaining these connections may depend on availability of cultural, ethnic, and religious communities and resources in URM program localities.
  • URM youth describe feeling grateful for the resources and support provided by their URM case managers and foster parents. Although they described challenges in adjusting to life in the United States, many youth find joy in connecting with foster families, making friends at school and through sports, and pursuing their goals.
  • The report provides recommendations for a future mixed-methods evaluation of the URM Program to address specific research questions. To prepare for future evaluations, the authors recommend engaging stakeholders in the planning of an evaluation, including youth, foster families, and program staff; adapting the conceptual model included in this report or tailoring one to address research questions of interest; defining outcomes; increasing capacity for data collection or sharing or identifying existing data for use in an evaluation; and identifying service components for evaluation.


This report draws from qualitative data collected through site visits to six URM programs, in which the research team conducted semi-structured interviews with URM program staff and community partners, as well as focus groups with a total of 45 URM youth and 56 URM foster parents. This report also incorporates findings from our surveys of URM program directors (23 respondents), State Refugee Coordinators (14 respondents), and child welfare administrators (four survey respondents and four semi-structured interviews). The report also includes findings from an analysis of program data that included characteristics of URM youth who entered the Program from FY 2014 to FY 2018 and information on the services provided to these youth.


Foley, K., Rodler, L., Elkin, S., and Williams, S. C. (2021). Final Report of the Descriptive Study of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program: Service Provision, Trends, and Evaluation Recommendations, OPRE Report #2021-81, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Unaccompanied Refugee Minor