In Defense of Heartland Alliance 

by ShaRhonda Knott Dawson

Our immigration system is a hot mess.  This is not news. However, recently, we have transitioned our hot mess of an immigration system, to flaming dookie shit storm.  This shit storm is brought to us, by President Shithead, Donald Trump, who forcibly separated children from their parents and relocating them to detention centers across America without their parents.  Recently ProPublica, a local, investigative news agency has done a series on the inner workings of Heartland Alliance.  Although I am a fan in general of the work of ProPublica, I have been outraged by information provided in their series, that unfairly paints Heartland Alliance in a negative light.

My assertion is, Heartland Alliance is one of the best social service agencies working with refugee children and families, not only in Chicago, but in the United States.  

Further, Heartland Alliance has been able to not only provide adequate, and I argue quality, care for refugee children, but they have managed that care, with little claims of abuse compared to other detention centers and foster care facilities in the United States.   In spite of all of the huge obstacles: legal, socially, and politically, Heartland Alliance, has provided food, shelter, medical care, some symbolism of routine, protection from human traffickers, protection from sexual and physical abuse, in numbers that are almost unheard with any other government agency working with vulnerable children.

I will attempt to provide the much-needed context of immigration policies, detention centers, and more importantly, the universal trauma of all children in state care.  What I hope to demonstrate is, by all measurable tools available, Heartland Alliance is providing quality care to the children, who are unaccompanied minors, especially those who are seeking asylum status, that is in their care. Further, Heartland Alliance has an unbelievable record of quality care compared to both other detention centers and, more relevant for those who are outraged by the claims of “suicidal thoughts of a 17 year old and/or a 10-month old baby being bit by another child” the continuous atrocities of care that are acceptable in the United States Foster Care system.

I’ve spoken with many people off the record, but much of my information came from numerous employees at Heartland Alliance, including a person whose job it was at Heartland Alliance to work at immigrant detention center as a “family reunification specialist” and an immigration lawyer, with a private practice attorney specializing in refugee claims, workers at detention centers in Texas and Arizona, and many social workers who are familiar with trauma-informed care and the process of dealing with unaccompanied minors seeking refugee status.

First, some clarification.  Part of the problem of the ProPublica article is that they interchangeably use, “kidnapped children” with “immigrant children that are detained.”  Also, there is a difference, in legality and services for people who are seeking, “Asylum” and people who are seeking to “Immigrate” to America.

Some clarifications:


Heartland Alliance holds the following categories of children in their shelters.  It is important that we understand the intention of Heartland Alliance is to “reunite the children in their shelters, with an adult/parent, or guardian.”  The intention of the shelters are NOT to deport children or turn them over to ICE; rather, they are trying to transition children from shelter to a parent/guardian.   

  • Refugee children, unaccompanied by a parent/guardian, who are seeking Asylum Status in America. 
  •   Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or at the border who meet the international law definition of a “refugee.” The United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol defines a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Congress incorporated this definition into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.
  • Unaccompanied Minors: A minor, (under age 18) who is illegally in the country, that is without a parent or guardian.  

         A child is in a detention shelter for 60 days on average.

2) How did the children end up at Heartland Alliances’ Shelters? 

The vast majority of children that are in detention centers, especially those at Heartland Alliance,  came voluntarily to the United States as “unaccompanied minors.” Meaning, they surrendered voluntarily to the ICE officials at the border, with the intention being transitioned through detention centers to their families/guardians in the US..  Here is a brief breakdown of volunteer surrenders: 

  • A child arrives at the border (usually by a paid smuggler) and the child turns themselves in seeking refugee status. 
  • ICE/CPD Customs and Border protection then keeps children for up to 72 hours and quickly places them in a random detention center in the United States.  The ORR does placements. There are no location preference options, people are placed where there is space available based on their specific needs.  
  • Upon arrival at the detention centers, like Heartland Alliance, the children are processed, evaluated by doctors, social workers, and other professionals, to determine if there are specific needs. 

Once in detention centers, the program staff, especially at Heartland Alliance, try to, as quickly as possible, unify the children with either a)parents in the United States (regardless of immigration status) b)close family or c)sponsor (could be neighbor, family friend.)  (voluntarily return, ICE)

3)What is the legal status of unaccompanied minors 

While in US custody, unaccompanied immigrant minors, those seeking asylum status or not, are under the custody care of United States governments department of Office of Refugee Resettlement(ORR).     As such, all under the policies, procedures that govern all children in state custody by the Department of Health and Human Services. Further, because they are seeking legal status, the children and the detention centers, are monitored by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)

A minor (less than 10%) of children who are in immigration detention centers are there because they were “caught” by ICE and don’t have parent/guardian available.  Many of these children that are detained from the ICE on the border, were a part of the human smuggling organizations. Often Mexican nationals will send underage minors to “deliver” children to the border because the consequences are not as severe as it would be for an adult.   These children are usually NOT looking to stay in the United States and want to return to their home countries. 

4) Who are the children who were kidnapped from their parents in the detention centers?

Immigrants coming to the United States seeking Asylum can do this by “turning themselves in at the border.”  This is legal and was not a criminally punishable offensive. President Trump, decided to changed things by instituting “Zero Tolerance.”  Which means that all adults, who come to the border, are in violation of a federal crime and are held of Federal Bureau of Correction), which by default, puts their children in the category of “unaccompanied minors.” 

Again, it is important to know that it absolutely legal to come to America’s border and seek asylum.  Many people fleeing trauma in their home countries, come to the border, seeking asylum as a unit. Donald Trump changed this when he, unilaterally, decided to charge adults different from children, which means the parents went to different detention centers than their children.  Which led to over 2000 children being separated from their parents. Meaning, their parents were sent to ICE centers and their children went to children detention centers. It is rare (less than 1% is the number I got from multiple people familiar with the system) for a child to be taken (“A Removal” is the official term)  from a detention center and deported from the United States.

5) What are the alternatives to Heartland Alliance Shelters for unaccompanied minors and why are they a bad idea? 

  •            Private, For-Profit,  Detention Centers Heartland Alliance is a nonprofit organization committed to serving and helping the most vulnerable people.  They have no financial incentive to profit off children. Further, they have a comprehensive history and record of successful program delivery, advocacy, and supports.
  •             Foster Care American Foster Care is notoriously broken and the claims of abuse in foster care are significantly higher and more intense than the allegations at Heartland Alliance shelters.
  •              Adoption – The unaccompanied minors have parents and families.  The goal is to reunite them with their families, not to place them in the new ones.
  •           Prisons If Trump continues to treat immigration as a federal crime, there is a new call for “Family Prisons.”  Meaning the children will be with their parents, but, both will be in federal prisons.
  •  Military Bases- Due to the large numbers of children, because of complications in processing and reunifying children, Trump’s administration is considering placing children in military bases as we run out of room in shelters.

6) How many American children are currently in the Foster Care Shelters and how is their treatment compared to the children at Heartland Alliance Immigration Shelters.

On any given day, there are nearly 438,000 children in foster care in the United States. 

In 2016, over 687,000 children spent time in U.S. foster care.

Here are some articles detailing the failures in our current system.

Abuse; Strained Foster Care, and systemic failure.

7) How many Immigrant Children are currently in the detention centers in the United States?

Currently, detention centers around the country, both nonprofits (like Heartland Alliance) and for-profit centers, house 11,786 immigrant children, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of those unaccompanied minors, 3,280 are female and 8,506 are male.

About Heartland Alliance

Now, that we understood the context, the legal terms, the process, and the difference between the kidnapped children in detention centers versus children who voluntarily went to shelters.  Next, I will provide information specific to the HeartlandAlliance.


Heartland Alliance is a non-for-profit social justice organization. Heartland Alliance provides a number of programs, supports, and advocacy for vulnerable people all over the world. One of the programs at Heartland Alliance is shelters for unaccompanied minors, that they are contracted by ORR and DHS. Heartland Alliance is led by a Latina social justice professional/warrior, Evelyn Diaz. Prior to her job as President to Heartland Alliance, she was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to head the City of Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services.

Heartland Alliance has 6-9 shelters (detention centers) throughout Chicago; 1-2 in suburbs for minors with disabilities (physical and social/emotional disability.)  The shelters look like a house and because of the danger many of the youth are under, such as human trafficking, there is no signage about Heartland or Shelter.

1. About the Heartland Alliance Shelters: Director of Youth Residential Service (Mr. White)

Heartland Alliance house unaccompanied youth in one of their multiple shelters.  Children are placed in shelters depending on a number of factors: age, health, specific needs.  Many of the shelters, look like homes, typically with two living rooms, rooms, dining room, kitchen, 5 large bedrooms (2-3 beds per room); 2 bathrooms for youth; 1 staff bathroom; garage with (ping pong) and a backyard. There are also enclosed porches and balconies.

Heartland Alliance, in addition to shelters for children without guardians, they also offer free legal counseling, transition services, and has an advocacy program devoted to fixing our broken immigration system.

2.  Privacy Policies:

Again, because the children are seeking asylum from danger, the protection and privacy of the children are the most important.  Privacy and safety are the reasons the children DO NOT attend local public school, play in the neighborhood, go to church, or even make personal phone calls.  The children are allowed to talk to pre-screened, approved parents a handful times a week.

3. Schools:

Heartland Alliance hires the teachers, per shelter, and the teacher in charge of education.  “School” is provided in the shelters. Each teacher gives each child, an entrance exam, to assess their grade level, and an individualized education plan.

4. Daily Structure:

Heartland Alliance, in accordance with DCFS policies, has to establish a daily schedule for the children.  Here is a typical daily schedule:

  • Every got up at the same time
  • Chores in the morning
  • Breakfast
  • Go to school
  • Recess
  • Go back to school
  • Downtime (video, games)
  • Dinner
  • Homework time
  • Scheduled enrichment activity
  • Downtown (nighttime chores; ie, taking out the trash)
  • Sleep

5. Rules:

Heartland Alliance uses a behavior management system.  Meaning that children receive a reward based off chores to get access to MP3’s and staff members and cookies.  DCFS system rules: Boys were separated from girls in dorms;  Staff used a separate bathroom.

Behavior rules: (Point system: clip chart after 3 redirections, you get clipped down.  

blue, green, yellow, red)All kids start at red.  Points at the end of the week

      • No touching one another
      • No horse playing
      • Refuse to go to school
      • Swearing (cussed out staff)
      • No relationship with outside people.  (no phone calls to anyone dating/friends)

Rewards for following rules:

  • Going to school
  • Following directions

Shelters have different levels of security. Special shelters if someone had a violent past. 

6. Heartland Alliance Staff:

Doctor(at a regimented time); social worker(weekly or sometimes more);

Weekly house meeting was once a week (facilitated by staff) Reunification Coordinator, Housing Staff.

The other unique quality to Heartland Alliance, unlike many shelters, is that many of their staff are bi-lingual and they have a strict hiring process.

7. Heartland Alliance Shelter Staff:

Heartland Alliance also has an employment requirement to pass crisis intervention training to work in shelters. This is specific to Heartland Alliance and not required by law or ORR for organizations to become detention centers

  1. Trauma-Informed Care (3 session)
  2. Crisis intervention trainings (2-3 days)
  3. PTSD
  4. Understanding children background (empathic)
  5. Looking out for triggers for children and staff
  7. Quiz after crisis intervention training 
  8. based support or cultural competency
  9. Restrained based training

8. Hiring process: 

DCFS certified before you can start.


-Cultural Competence

– Super supportive, enjoyable environment, with people with stress language.

9. How is the Heartland Alliance monitored governed? 

  1.             Federal Policy
  2.             Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE)
  3.              Office of Refugee Resettlement
  4.             Department of Human Services
  5.             Illinois Department of Children, Family and Services
  6.              Independent Monitoring Agency
  7.             Heartland Alliance Board of Directors

Rebuttals to the False Claims on Heartland Alliance 


CLAIM ONE: Heartland Alliance is responsible for long(er) stays in the detention centers.

THE TRUTH: Heartland Alliance is not responsible for the longer stays.  Below are the mitigating factors that are the reasons for longers stays.

  1. Federal policy has prioritized the kidnapped children
  2. Heartland Alliance is now required to share to given to ORR sponsor information with ICE, which makes sponsors more difficult
  3. Once sponsors are approved, the sponsors now have to pay for transporting the child from Heartland Alliance to their home. So, if a family is New York, the sponsor is responsible for travel which can be upwards of $1000.
  4. ORR has made family reunification more difficult.  Now all adult household members have to be willing to be background. (JUNE)

Heartland Alliance has had staff shortages which means that many people have multiple jobs: so reunification family specialist, are also helping with dinner prep, game time, and group meetings.  Every minute that the reunification person is spending with the child and their immediate needs, they are not spending working on the child’s reunification with their family.

CLAIM TWO: Heartland Alliance’s has an excessively regimented schedule, and controlling nearly every minute of a child’s day.  

The Truth

Again, context is important. Everyday care, every school, every place that has licensed to deal with children, must have a schedule for the children.  They can NOT simply be in bed all day, for obvious reasons. Further, Heartland Alliance, intermingles social activities, eating, and school time, throughout the day, and as appropriate for the children in the centers.

Claim Three: Heartland Alliance abuses children and has many unresearched claims of Abuse

The Truth 

It is purposely misleading, and I think unethical, to talk about the treatment of immigrant children in one center without comparing the other centers and/or without talking about the American Foster Care system. It’s like talking about problems at Winnetka Schools versus Chicago Public Schools. No exaggeration, of all the children in government care, in all categories, those immigrant children detained at Heartland Alliance, is having New Trier education level problems, versus a, well, any under-funded Chicago Public School. The average foster care child goes through over 20 placements in their lifetime! 20 different ones including group homes/orphanages. The level of sexual abuse, neglect, and brokenness is unfathomable. Kidnapped children are its own story. The story of those children who are held at all detention centers, forced away from their parents, is important and needs to be covered. But to lump all of Heartland Alliance’s centers, over the last 10 (?) years, is apples and oranges. Also, to find 2(?) accusations of sexual abuse, that are unfounded so far, for a center that operates 9 shelters is unbelievably successful. There are terrible, terrible places working with children. Terrible! Heartland Alliance is not one of those places. In fact, they have done an incredible job in a shitty, shitty system with limited resources/funding/staffing.

Most importantly, If we lose Heartland Alliance as a shelter  that helps and/or holds, detained immigrant children, those children are worse off. And our country is worse off. I am terrified of what happens if Heartland Alliance is NOT one of the options for immigrant children!  

The alternative would be ICE jails or for-profit detention shelters. I’ve read the stories and heard from the people on the ground in Texas, Arizona, and California.

In conclusion, it is unfair to the  Heartland Alliance of ProPublica to post “abuse claims” without a comparison or context. 

If Heartland Alliance is bad, then what agency is doing a good job? Should they not be diligent about background checks and sponsors, in order to get children out of shelters more quickly?  How are they responsible for the length of stay, if ICE makes the final decision? They keep kids in shelters until they can guarantee “safe” placements. Which is way better than DCFS and they foster home placements. Also, their days are regimented because of state law and DCFS policy. Heartland Alliance has to have a certain schedule, like other shelters. Compare all the data provided about Heartland Alliance and detained immigrant children, with any other shelter and/or state run institution that works with wards of the state. That’s how you get an accurate picture of the work of Heartland Alliance.

One of the Illinois shelters that gets citizens who are “tender age” has had sexual abuse, physical abuse, and been written in the last year, more time than all of Heartland Alliance shelters combined! I’m all for transparency and have been, and will continue to do everything I possibly can for all children, especially the children who were kidnapped and are in state custody. But this type of sensationalism journalism doesn’t help children. It just makes organizations, that are doing good work, with terrible legal restraints, look tainted.

Heartland Alliance is an organization truly committed to social justice and human rights.  Heartland Alliance is not responsible for separating children from their families. However, in every viable alternative for unaccompanied minors, outside of being with their parents, Heartland Alliance is the best choice.  Somehow Heartland Alliance has been able to protect, serve, and safely place children against all odds.

We owe Heartland Alliance our gratitude, not scorn. 






5 thoughts on “In Defense of Heartland Alliance”

  1. i don’t agree that heartland alliance deserves a praise nor hatred even tho they are looking for people to hate them i was in those homes i was in chicago iyc where they treated immigrants like me like a piece of trash like if i was an animal from the wild i will make sure they close it or find better workers i snucked in my phone without anyone knowing many good people where slowly fired or puposly sabotage to quite iyc was the place i was in a so supervisor called partricia was the lady who threaten me so many times for being mexican she verbally abused me along with supervisor samuel from panama i will get a hold ceo and higher of heartland alliance i will not stay quite i will help those who need help too they trick us into pretending to saying its okay there its a lie they tell us we won’t ever see our family not all of them very tho but thanks for the hospitality by the way if you don’t believe me i know the routine of the staff members they wake us for shower at 6 they feed us by 9 if they want they tell us if not longer if not they won’t feed us they give us walmart shoes that say athletic they also give us a number i was in iyc where i was scared to death and threaten well i will help others as well by the power of my voice hear me out they are monsters

    1. I agree with you anonymous, we have spoken with several different youth who were detained in Heartland facilties and we know that they are detention centers where young people are treated badly and they are not there voluntarily. Little Village Solidaity Network offers to support people and families who were held in custody in these kind of facilities, you should reach out to them out

  2. Children don’t deserve to be in detention centers, even if they’re called shelters and they on paper provide certain services. This article is a terrible defense and frankly embarrassing on your part to make the case for the detention of children while claiming to be a social justice advocate.

    1. I agree with you. I wrote this in 2018 at the very beginning of this humanitarian crisis. Obviously now that we are in 2021, we have a lot more information. And it is clear that the situation I was describing, is NOT what is actually happening to kidnapped refugee children by our government. However, I don’t want to take this down because it is important to me, to share pieces when I was right and wrong. Growth in advocacy is ongoing and it isn’t without a lot of missteps. This was one of my (many) missteps. Keeping this published on my site, a time when I was wrong, keeps me humble. And, I hope, it allows others who does this work to acknowledge times when they were wrong as well. Thanks for commenting.

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