Vi­o­la­tions rife at youth shel­ters

State finds 150 in­frac­tions at mi­grant fa­cil­i­ties run by non­profit

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Al­lie Mor­ris

AUSTIN — A child who tested pos­i­tive for a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease wasn’t given treat­ment for more than two weeks.

Another was left alone in a bath­room for 15 min­utes, dur­ing which time he harmed him­self.

One staff mem­ber showed up to work drunk, while oth­ers be­lit­tled chil­dren.

State health reg­u­la­tors doc­u­mented those and about 150 other stan­dards vi­o­la­tions at more than a dozen mi­grant chil­dren shel­ters across Texas run by South­west Key Pro­grams.

The non­profit grabbed na­tional at­ten­tion last week when Demo­cratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Ore­gon tried to view con­di­tions at one of its Brownsvill­e shel­ters, but wasn’t al­lowed in­side.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment pays South­west Key to take in thou­sands of un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors, but Texas state health reg­u­la­tors li­cense and in­spect the shel­ters.

De­fi­cien­cies they doc­u­mented over the past two years in­clude chil­dren given food or medicine they were

al­ler­gic to, lack of timely med­i­cal care and in­ad­e­quate su­per­vi­sion — lead­ing some chil­dren to harm them­selves.

A South­west Key spokes­woman said the or­ga­ni­za­tion is proud of its track record and has taken ac­tion when needed.

“In the last three years, South­west Key UM shel­ter pro­grams have been eval­u­ated for com­pli­ance on 73,292 stan­dards and we are proud to say that less than one per­cent of those re­sulted in a de­fi­ciency,” spokes­woman Cindy Casares wrote.

“How­ever, we take each of the de­fi­cien­cies se­ri­ously by self-re­port­ing to in­vite ex­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions as well as per­form­ing our own in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions. When called for, staff have been ter­mi­nated or re­trained as we con­tinue to strive for ex­cel­lence in the ser­vices we pro­vide to the chil­dren en­trusted to our care.”

Chil­dren taken from par­ents

The Texas in­spec­tion re­ports of­fer a rare glimpse in­side shel­ters that are tak­ing in chil­dren be­ing sep­a­rated from their par­ents along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy.

In May, more than 600 fam­i­lies were sep­a­rated at the bor­der, the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment re­ported.

South­west Key Pro­grams is one of the largest op­er­a­tors in Texas, run­ning 16 of the 35 shel­ters that con­tract with the fed­eral Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment, ac­cord­ing to state data.

As of last month, South­west Key shel­ters housed nearly 2,600 un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren. The largest, at a for­mer Wal­mart in Brownsvill­e and known as Casa Padre, held more than 1,000 kids as of mid-May, state data showed.

Child tests pos­i­tive for STD

At Casa Padre, the shel­ter Merkley tried to en­ter, the state doc­u­mented 13 li­cens­ing de­fi­cien­cies over the course of 22 in­spec­tions within the last year.

In mid-Septem­ber, a res­i­dent tested pos­i­tive for an STD, but the med­i­cal co­or­di­na­tor failed to fol­low up with treat­ment and the child didn’t get care un­til Oct. 3, state in­spec­tion records said. Last sum­mer, state of­fi­cials found a shel­ter em­ployee “made a be­lit­tling re­mark to­wards a child in care in the pres­ence of other chil­dren.”

Casares said South­west Key self-re­ported both in­stances to state reg­u­la­tors.

“Ac­cord­ing to the Texas DFPS web­site, 6,655 stan­dards have been eval­u­ated for com­pli­ance at Casa Padre since it opened. Of those, 13 or 0.195 per­cent re­sulted in de­fi­cien­cies,” she said. “While we al­ways strive for per­fec­tion, we are ex­tremely proud of our com­pli­ance record and use ev­ery visit as a chance to work with our li­cens­ing part­ners to im­prove our pro­grams and prac­tice to en­sure the high­est qual­ity of care for the chil­dren we serve.”

South­west Key op­er­ates 27 im­mi­grant chil­dren’s shel­ters across Texas, Ari­zona and Cal­i­for­nia, ac­cord­ing to its web­site.

Un­der a four-year con­tract with the U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, South­west Key is be­ing paid more than $400 mil­lion to care for un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors who are ap­pre­hended by fed­eral au­thor­i­ties.

Once sent to a shel­ter, the chil­dren are then placed with rel­a­tives or put into a fed­eral foster care sys­tem. The process is over­seen by the Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment, which did not re­turn a re­quest for com­ment.

Chil­dren who ar­rive at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der of­ten are flee­ing vi­o­lence or nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in their home coun­tries and have ex­pe­ri­enced sig­nif­i­cant trauma, said Jodi Berger Car­doso, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton’s Grad­u­ate Col­lege of So­cial Work.

“What my re­search has shown is that many kids, on av­er­age, are ex­posed to at least eight ex­treme trau­matic events in their life,” she said. “We have found as many as 60 per­cent of kids are symp­to­matic for post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.”

The ma­jor­ity of un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors who ar­rived in the U.S. last fis­cal year were over age 15, and nearly 70 per­cent were male, ac­cord­ing to data from the Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment. On av­er­age, the chil­dren spent 41 days in a shel­ter last fis­cal year.

South­west Key shel­ters in Texas took in more than 11,110 mi­nors dur­ing the 2017 fis­cal year, which ended in Septem­ber. Since then, the or­ga­ni­za­tion said its Texas shel­ters have served more than 11,900 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors.

A Hearst News­pa­pers in­ves­ti­ga­tion in 2014 found that un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors qui­etly suf­fered sex­ual and other abuses in shel­ters. A fed­eral records re­quest turned up 101 “sig­nif­i­cant in­ci­dent re­ports” from March 2011 to March 2013 in­volv­ing abuse al­le­ga­tions against staff mem­bers in shel­ters across the coun­try.

No sex­ual abuse found

Texas child care li­cens­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tors doc­u­mented no in­stances of sex­ual or other child abuse at South­west Key shel­ters over the past two years.

They did find, how­ever, that staff gave chil­dren the wrong medicine and did not seek timely treat­ment. One child was given Tylenol in March, de­spite wear­ing a red bracelet show­ing she’s al­ler­gic. Another sus­tained a wrist frac­ture, but didn’t see a doc­tor un­til three days later.

In other cases, the state noted staff be­lit­tled chil­dren or left them with­out su­per­vi­sion.

Last year, work­ers at the Nueva Esper­anza shel­ter in Brownsvill­e wouldn’t let one youth use the re­stroom, even af­ter the child asked re­peat­edly. In another case, “a su­per­vi­sor did not ex­hibit pru­dent judg­ment and es­ca­lated a res­i­dent while she was hav­ing a cri­sis re­sult­ing in the res­i­dent self-harm­ing.” One em­ployee was found to be “over the le­gal limit of al­co­hol” when he showed up to work at a South­west Key shel­ter last year.

Casares said the or­ga­ni­za­tion re­ported all those in­stances to state reg­u­la­tors and launched in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

In many cases in­volv­ing staff de­fi­cien­cies, Casares said em­ploy­ees “were sub­ject to dis­ci­pline, in­clud­ing em­ploy­ment ter­mi­na­tion,” while some oth­ers were re­trained. She did not spec­ify which ac­tion fol­lowed each spe­cific de­fi­ciency.

“We take all med­i­cal er­rors ex­tremely se­ri­ously at South­west Key. Af­ter any re­ported med­i­cal er­ror, South­west Key in­ves­ti­gates the sit­u­a­tion as well as the rel­e­vant staff mem­ber(s) to de­ter­mine ap­pro­pri­ate next steps,” she added.

Will Fran­cis, gov­ern­ment re­la­tions di­rec­tor for the Texas chap­ter of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of So­cial Work­ers, said staff likely need bet­ter train­ing in so­cial ser­vices and trauma-in­formed care.

“Kids who made the trek to our bor­der have prob­a­bly ex­pe­ri­enced things that are go­ing to re­quire med­i­cal care,” Fran­cis said. “Med­i­cal needs be­ing ne­glected for kids in shel­ters is, I think, an is­sue.”

The Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment also in­spects the shel­ters and is sup­posed to con­duct site vis­its each month and at least one mon­i­tor­ing visit ev­ery two years, ac­cord­ing to pol­icy. It’s not clear what is­sues, if any, fed­eral in­spec­tors found at South­west Key shel­ters.

A for­mer U.S. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices of­fi­cial said it’s im­por­tant to know whether state in­spec­tion records are be­ing re­layed to fed­eral over­seers.

“The big­gest ques­tions for the ORR side are were they aware, and if so, what did they do?” said Mark Green­berg, now a se­nior fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.based Mi­gra­tion Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

Merkley

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