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Refugee Children of Non-Biological Family Units

State Letter #10-06

Published: April 29, 2010


FROM: Eskinder Negash
Office of Refugee Resettlement

SUBJECT: Refugee Children of Non-Biological Family Units

The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) asks state refugee offices, national voluntary agencies and local resettlement offices to pay particular attention to the special needs of non‑biological, refugee family units (adults with unrelated children) when they arrive in the United States.

ORR recently has learned of cases of non-biological, refugee family units that are unable to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) due to their family composition. Consequently, after the eight months of Refugee Cash and Medical Assistance expires, and the adults have not obtained employment, the families find themselves without financial support.

In some cases, state refugee offices and resettlement agencies have advised the non-biological “parents” to request the placement of the children in the ORR Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) program to ensure the children receive care and services. To enter the URM program, a state must establish legal responsibility for the child by placing legal custody with the state or a private agency.1 Therefore, placing the children in the URM program may put the “parents” at risk of losing the opportunity to obtain legal custody of the children. In addition, placement in the URM program does not respond to the underlying issue, which is the inability of the resettlement resources to address the real needs of the family.

ORR believes there are a number of steps that can be taken to improve the situation for these non-biological family units, including establishing legal custody prior to departure for the United States. If this has not happened overseas, ORR asks that resettlement offices assist the “parents” immediately upon arrival in establishing legal guardianship or adoption of the children to maintain the on-going relationship of the family. Resettlement offices should explain to the “parents” the repercussions of failing to obtain a legal right in the United States to provide care for a child (e.g., inability to make medical decisions for the child). ORR is aware that legal guardianship will not make families eligible for TANF in most states. Therefore, if your state or agency has found other promising solutions, please contact Pam Green-Smith, the Director of the Division of Refugee Assistance, at (202) 401-4531.

Last Reviewed: May 20, 2019