Slowed by COVID-19, California group tries to track down families separated at the border

Veronica Ledesma is an outreach coordinator with the nonprofit Seneca Family of Agencies.
Veronica Ledesma, an outreach coordinator with Seneca Family of Agencies, connects people with mental health services to overcome trauma caused by the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Veronica Ledesma goes to sleep worrying about 86 families. And none of them are her own.

There’s the mother who fears being five minutes late to pick up her children. They were separated at the border and when she is late the kids wonder if they will see her again.

The little boy who doesn’t want to be in this country anymore, after being taken from his parent.

A mother who prayed for someone to help her and her daughter, who were apart with no contact for over a month.


Ledesma’s job is to connect these fragile families with services — paid for by the government — that will help them overcome the trauma and mental illness caused by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Since April, outreach coordinators have been trying to reach thousands of immigrant parents and children who have been reunified after months of separation.

Although the government has acknowledged that about 2,700 children were separated from their families at the border, the total number of those separated under President Trump remains unknown. Earlier this year, the group Physicians for Human Rights found that the separations constituted torture.

In the last five months, coordinators with Seneca Family of Agencies, a California-based nonprofit, have reached several hundred families out of about 2,500 across the United States who are potentially eligible for services.

It’s a difficult job under any circumstances; but a deadline looms, and the pandemic has made these families harder to find and turned available services into rare commodities.

“The timing could not have been worse, and the impact could not be larger in terms of the degree to which we are slowed down,” said Ken Berrick, chief executive and founder of Seneca Family of Agencies. “What I think was thought of as a yearlong process just can’t possibly be done in that time.”

On a recent Thursday, Ledesma underwent a two-hour training meant to help coordinators track down families scattered across the country.


They went over community outreach ideas, such as contacting grocery stores, community centers and laundromats near addresses of families to see if they’d put up fliers to promote the Todo Por Mi Familia initiative.

During the training, they were able to find the number for a family on Whitepages.

“Our goal is to connect every single one of our families to services,” Ledesma said. “We don’t want to not be able to find one.”

Seneca has been helping with the effort since the end of March, after a judge ordered the government to provide mental health services to families who were separated by the government on or after July 1, 2017, and who remain in the U.S.

The government’s contract with Seneca ends in January 2021. The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would extend the contract.

“We’re hoping there’ll be some flexibility,” Berrick said. “We started this in an environment that was very different than what the settlement anticipated.”

To try to find families before the deadline, the agency has collaborated with legal and community-based organizations, created a hotline and made videos of celebrities — like Pedro Pascal of “The Mandalorian” — touting the initiative. Outreach coordinators have used contact information and last known addresses provided by the government.


But some of the numbers ring to detention centers. Others are out of service. Of her 86-family caseload, Ledesma — who is on the Central Texas team — has been able to reach only 12.

When she does get in contact, Ledesma — who has a social work background — must overcome skepticism and assure families that the services will not affect their legal proceedings and that their information will not be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reiterated that information about the families discovered by Seneca is not shared with ICE or other government agencies.

”...families interact only with Seneca nonprofit staff, and then with their mental health providers, not with federal personnel,” the agency said in a statement.

To reassure families, Ledesma at times shares her own background immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 8 years old. She was granted immigration relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — better known as DACA.

In the case of one mother who wanted to help her daughter process the trauma, Ledesma was able to connect them with a clinic that would provide free mental health, dental and primary care services.


“She was just very grateful to feel like her sacrifices were worth it,” Ledesma said.

Some days though, Ledesma finds herself calling more than 10 providers. Because of the pandemic, some clinics are closed. Therapists aren’t accepting new patients or don’t call back immediately because they’re working from home.

“It’s hard to find providers. I think that’s where we’re struggling the most because of COVID-19,” Ledesma said. “We need other providers to step up and help us with these families.”

In her first therapy session, Luisa confessed the guilt she’d been carrying since she was separated from her 13-year-old daughter two years ago.

Guilt over the fact that her daughter didn’t trust her anymore. That the teenager avoided her embrace. That she lashed out at her mother.

What happened, the therapist consoled Luisa, was not her fault.

Luisa arrived at the border in December 2017, fleeing gang persecution in El Salvador. Soon after, her daughter watched as she was placed in shackles.


The little girl could only make the shape of a heart with her hands before her mother was taken away.

While her daughter was placed with a foster family in the U.S., Luisa was deported to El Salvador. She was one of at least 471 parents who were deported without their children.

Luisa wouldn’t see her daughter for 16 months, until April 2019. By the time they reunited in the U.S., with the help of the legal advocacy nonprofit Al Otro Lado, the two were like strangers.

Al Otro Lado has been able to reunite around 36 separated parents with their children, most recently in January. There have been 25 of those families who have since connected with Seneca and five who have already started therapy, including Luisa.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, families are receiving tele-health services instead of face-to-face appointments.

Over the past month, Luisa and her daughter have had several therapy sessions where the therapist has asked them to open up to one another. Luisa talked about why she left their country, her daughter about the fears that they might be separated again.


“I think that’s the conversation where she opened her heart and began expressing herself,” Luisa said. “It was something so beautiful that we’ve been practicing.”

It won’t change overnight, Luisa said, but her daughter is hugging her again.

Families can access services by calling or texting Seneca’s confidential and toll-free hotline at 844-529-3327 or emailing