Shel­ter holds tour in chal­lenge to claims of ill treat­ment

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Aaron Nelsen and Al­lie Mor­ris

BROWNSVILLE — After a week of spec­u­la­tion about the treat­ment of im­mi­grant chil­dren kept be­hind the win­dow­less walls of the largest shel­ter for mi­nors in the na­tion, the non­profit that op­er­ates the fa­cil­ity on Wed­nes­day held a tour, hop­ing to dis­pel the ru­mors.

“We take great care of kids,” said Juan Sanchez, the pres­i­dent and CEO of South­west Key. “Our goal is to re­unify these chil­dren with their fam­i­lies.”

Nearly 1,500 kids spread across the sprawl­ing floor plan of a re­mod­eled Wal­mart dined on chicken, mashed pota­toes, fruit and veg­eta­bles, even as a movie theater at the op­po­site end of the build­ing showed the Walt Dis­ney film “Moana” in Span­ish.

A re­cent uptick in un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren cross­ing the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der — 6,405 in May — has pushed shel­ter oc­cu­pancy to 1,469, just a few kids shy of its max­i­mum ca­pac­ity of 1,497.

Of­fi­cials at the boys-only fa­cil­ity say the ma­jor­ity of these chil­dren were trav­el­ing alone and were not sep­a­rated from par­ents at the bor­der. The kids are 10-17 and most come from Cen­tral Amer­ica, al­though there were a few from In­dia and China.

Casa Padre and other shel­ters have drawn in­ter­est from con­gres­sional lead­ers and im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates as hun­dreds of chil­dren have been sep­a­rated from their par­ents along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy.

The of­fi­cials at Casa Padre de-

clined to com­ment on that pol­icy.

“What we are about, and we do it very well, is we take care of kids,” Sanchez said.

The shel­ter has had to make ad­just­ments in re­cent weeks to ac­com­mo­date new arrivals, adding an ad­di­tional por­ta­ble bed to bed­rooms that al­ready have four sin­gle beds.

When a child ar­rives at the Brownsville shel­ter, he or she re­ceives a health care screen­ing and meets with a case worker, who con­tacts par­ents and a po­ten­tial spon­sor in the United States, ideally a fam­ily mem­ber.

Chil­dren are placed with rel­a­tives or put into a fed­eral foster care sys­tem, a process that is over­seen by the Office of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment.

New arrivals are kept apart from the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion for a pe­riod of 48 hours un­til their med­i­cal ex­ams are com­pleted.

South­west Key main­tains a ra­tio of one case man­ager for every eight kids, and one clin­i­cian for every 12 kids. There are also 48 med­i­cal staff and three on-call physi­cians, Sanchez said. Over­all, the fa­cil­ity has 1,267 em­ploy­ees.

Mixed mu­ral re­sponse

The 250,000 square-foot build­ing has class­rooms where kids take six hours of in­struc­tion Mon­day through Fri­day. Cur­rently they are learn­ing about the U.S. branches of govern­ment.

The chil­dren are re­leased two hours per day for out­door ac­tiv­ity, and taken on ex­cur­sions around Brownsville. Recre­ation rooms of­fer bil­liards and video games, and col­or­ful mu­rals of U.S. presidents adorn the walls.

Not all of the shel­ter’s res­i­dents have re­sponded pos­i­tively to Trump’s mu­ral.

“Each shel­ter is dec­o­rated to be child friendly, and ed­u­ca­tion is a com­po­nent we try to in­cor­po­rate into all our pro­gram­ming,” said spokes­woman Cindy Casares.

Mu­rals of about 20 other U.S. presidents are ac­com­pa­nied by an in­spi­ra­tional quote, writ­ten in English and Span­ish. Trump’s quote reads: “Some­times by los­ing a bat­tle you find a new way to win the war.”

“A lot of (the chil­dren) said they had heard a lot of anti-im­mi­grant things Don­ald Trump had said,” said Diana Gomez, who con­ducted le­gal screen­ings in­side the shel­ter for sev­eral months in 2017. “They were flee­ing vi­o­lence in their homes to seek op­por­tu­nity and a bet­ter life in the U.S . ... They saw Don­ald Trump as a per­son who would be a threat to that hope and even­tu­ally de­port them back to their coun­try where they would face in­evitable death.”

The non­profit that runs the shel­ter came un­der scru­tiny a week ago when U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore­gon, was barred from en­ter­ing and lo­cal po­lice were called. On Wed­nes­day, in an­swer to a ques­tion about that, shel­ter of­fi­cials said they didn’t know Merkley and they had no se­cu­rity on site to ver­ify his iden­tity.

A South­west Key spokes­woman said the or­ga­ni­za­tion is proud of its track record and its child care.

And yet, state health reg­u­la­tors have within the last year doc­u­mented nu­mer­ous vi­o­la­tions at Casa Padre.

Some of the 13 vi­o­la­tions in­clude em­ploy­ees be­lit­tling chil­dren, bath­rooms with over­flow­ing toi­lets, lapsed den­tal ap­point­ments and at least one res­i­dent who tested pos­i­tive for a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease, but didn’t re­ceive treat­ment for more than two weeks.

Texas state health reg­u­la­tors found about 150 vi­o­la­tions across the non­profit’s 16 Texas shel­ters.

Sanchez said that on oc­ca­sion a child has run away. Others who the shel­ter work­ers can’t han­dle have had to be trans­ferred to other fa­cil­i­ties.

Pos­si­ble ex­pan­sion

Un­der a four-year con­tract with the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices the non­profit is paid more than $400 mil­lion to care for un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors. South­west Key man­ages 27 shel­ters for im­mi­grant chil­dren in Texas, Ari­zona and Cal­i­for­nia.

With the num­ber of im­mi­grants ar­riv­ing at the South­west bor­der plum­met­ing to his­toric lows in May 2017, the non­profit laid off hun­dreds of its em­ploy­ees. A year later, Casa Padre is al­most at ca­pac­ity. Of­fi­cials couldn’t say how many of the laid-off em­ploy­ees had been re­hired or how quickly they were able to staff up again.

South­west Key shel­ters in Texas took in more than 11,110 mi­nors dur­ing the 2017 fis­cal year, which ended Sept. 30. Since then, the or­ga­ni­za­tion said, its Texas shel­ters have served more than 11,900 un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is con­sid­er­ing tent cities at mil­i­tary posts around Texas to house the in­crease of mi­grant chil­dren in de­ten­tion. Reuters has re­ported 1,800 fam­ily sep­a­ra­tions be­tween Oc­to­ber 2016 and Fe­bru­ary.

Sanchez said South­west Key would not par­tic­i­pate in a tent city ex­pan­sion, but might con­sider ex­pand­ing op­er­a­tions.

The ma­jor­ity of un­ac­com­pa­nied mi­nors who ar­rived dur­ing the last fis­cal year, which ended in Septem­ber, were older than 15, and nearly 70 per­cent were male, ac­cord­ing to ORR data. Chil­dren spent an av­er­age of 49 days in Casa Padre; the goal is one month.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.