Cost to de­tain mi­nors grows

U.S. fund­ing to shel­ter and care for migrant chil­dren nears $1 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Martha Men­doza and Larry Fenn

De­tain­ing im­mi­grant chil­dren has mor­phed into a surg­ing in­dus­try in the U.S. that now reaps $1 bil­lion an­nu­ally — a ten­fold in­crease over the last decade, an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis finds.

De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices grants for shel­ters, fos­ter care and other child wel­fare ser­vices for de­tained un­ac­com­pa­nied and sep­a­rated chil­dren soared from $74.5 million in 2007 to $958 million in 2017. The agency also is re­view­ing a new round of pro­pos­als amid a grow­ing ef­fort by the White House to keep im­mi­grant chil­dren in gov­ern­ment cus­tody.

Cur­rently, more than 11,800 chil­dren, from a few months old to 17, are housed in nearly 90 fa­cil­i­ties in 15 states: Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona, Con­necti­cut, Florida, Illi­nois, Kansas, Mary­land, Michi­gan, New Jersey, New York, Ore­gon, Penn­syl­va­nia, Texas, Vir­ginia and Wash­ing­ton.

They are be­ing held while their par­ents await im­mi­gra­tion pro­ceed­ings or, if the chil­dren ar­rived un­ac­com­pa­nied, are re­viewed for pos­si­ble asy­lum them­selves.

In May, the agency is­sued re­quests for bids for five projects that could to­tal more than $500 million for beds, fos­ter and ther­a­peu­tic care, and “se­cure care,” which means em­ploy­ing guards. More con­tracts are ex­pected to come up for bids in Oc­to­ber.

Health and Hu­man Ser­vices spokesman Ken­neth Wolfe said the agency will

award bids “based on the num­ber of beds needed to pro­vide ap­pro­pri­ate care for mi­nors in the pro­gram.”

The agency’s cur­rent fa­cil­i­ties in­clude lo­ca­tions for what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion calls “ten­der age” chil­dren, typ­i­cally un­der 5. Three shel­ters in Texas have been des­ig­nated for tod­dlers and in­fants. Oth­ers — in­clud­ing in tents in Tornillo, Texas, and a tent-and-building tem­po­rary shel­ter in Homestead, Fla. — are hous­ing older teens.

Over the last decade, by far the largest re­cip­i­ents of tax­payer money have been South­west Key and Bap­tist Child & Fam­ily Ser­vices, AP’s anal­y­sis shows. From 2008 to date, South­west Key has re­ceived $1.39 bil­lion in grant fund­ing to op­er­ate shel­ters; Bap­tist Child & Fam­ily Ser­vices has re­ceived $942 million.

A Texas-based or­ga­ni­za­tion called In­ter­na­tional Ed­u­ca­tional Ser­vices also was a big re­cip­i­ent, land­ing more than $72 million in the last fis­cal year be­fore fold­ing amid a series of com­plaints about the con­di­tions in its shel­ters.

The re­cip­i­ents of the money run the gamut of non­prof­its, re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions and for-profit en­ti­ties. The or­ga­ni­za­tions orig­i­nally con­cen­trated on hous­ing and de­tain­ing atrisk youth but shifted their fo­cus to im­mi­grants when tens of thou­sands of Cen­tral Amer­i­can chil­dren started ar­riv­ing at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der in re­cent years.

They are es­sen­tially gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors for Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, the fed­eral agency that ad­min­is­ters the pro­gram keep­ing im­mi­grant chil­dren in cus­tody.

Or­ga­ni­za­tions such as South­west Key say that the chil­dren are well cared for and that the vast sums of money they re­ceive are nec­es­sary to house, trans­port, ed­u­cate and pro­vide med­i­cal care for thou­sands of chil­dren while com­ply­ing with gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions and court or­ders.

The re­cent up­roar sur­round­ing sep­a­rated fam­i­lies at the bor­der has placed the lo­ca­tions at the cen­ter of the con­tro­versy. A for­mer Wal­mart store in Texas is now a South­west Key fa­cil­ity that is be­lieved to be the big­gest child im­mi­grant fa­cil­ity in the coun­try, and First Lady Me­la­nia Trump vis­ited an­other South­west Key location in Phoenix.

Ad­vo­cates on both sides of the aisle crit­i­cize that a grow­ing num­ber of kids are housed in gov­ern­ment shel­ters, but they have dif­fer­ent rea­sons — and they blame each other.

“You can’t put a child in a prison. You can­not. It’s im­moral,” said Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand (D-N.Y.), who has been vis­it­ing shel­ters.

Gil­li­brand said the shel­ters will con­tinue to ex­pand be­cause no sys­tem is in place to re­unite fam­i­lies sep­a­rated at the bor­der. “These are real con­cerns that the ad­min­is­tra­tion has not thought through at all,” she said.

But Pres­i­dent Trump says crack­ing down on im­mi­gra­tion ul­ti­mately can lead to spend­ing less money and hav­ing fewer im­mi­grants in gov­ern­ment cus­tody.

“Il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion costs our coun­try hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars,” he said at a re­cent rally. “So imag­ine if we could spend that money to help bring op­por­tu­nity to our in­ner cities and our ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and our roads and our high­ways and our schools.”

In April, Atty. Gen. Jeff Ses­sions an­nounced a “zero tol­er­ance pol­icy” di­rect­ing au­thor­i­ties to ar­rest, jail and pros­e­cute any­one il­le­gally cross­ing the bor­der, in­clud­ing peo­ple seek­ing asy­lum and with­out pre­vi­ous of­fenses. As a re­sult, more than 2,300 chil­dren were turned over to Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

In a re­cently re­leased report, the State De­part­ment de­cried the gen­eral prin­ci­ple of hold­ing chil­dren in shel­ters, say­ing it makes them in­her­ently vul­ner­a­ble.

“Re­moval of a child from the fam­ily should only be con­sid­ered as a tem­po­rary, last re­sort,” the report said. “Stud­ies have found that both pri­vate and gov­ern­ment-run res­i­den­tial in­sti­tu­tions for chil­dren, or places such as or­phan­ages and psy­chi­atric wards that do not of­fer a fam­ily-based set­ting, can­not repli­cate the emo­tional com­pan­ion­ship and at­ten­tion found in fam­ily en­vi­ron­ments that are pre­req­ui­sites to healthy cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment.”

Some in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion de­scribe the new pol­icy as a “de­ter­rent” to fu­ture would-be im­mi­grants and asy­lum-seekers flee­ing vi­o­lence and ab­ject poverty in Cen­tral Amer­ica, Mex­ico and be­yond.

But Steven Wag­ner, act­ing as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for the Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies — a di­vi­sion of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices — said the pol­icy has ex­posed broader is­sues over how the gov­ern­ment can man­age such a vast sys­tem.

“It was never in­tended to be a fos­ter care sys­tem with more than 10,000 chil­dren in cus­tody at an im­me­di­ate cost to the fed­eral tax­payer of over $1 bil­lion per year,” Wag­ner said in a state­ment.

The longer a child is in gov­ern­ment cus­tody, the greater the po­ten­tial for emo­tional and phys­i­cal dam­age, said Dr. Colleen Kraft, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pe­di­atrics.

“The foun­da­tional re­la­tion­ship be­tween a par­ent and child is what sets the stage for that child’s brain de­vel­op­ment, for their learn­ing, for their child health, for their adult health,” Kraft said.

“And you could have the nicest fa­cil­ity with the nicest equip­ment and toys and games, but if you don’t have that par­ent, if you don’t have that car­ing adult that can buf­fer the stress that these kids feel, then you’re tak­ing away the ba­sic sci­ence of what we know helps pe­di­atrics.”

Last month, a judge in Cal­i­for­nia or­dered au­thor­i­ties to re­unite chil­dren with their fam­i­lies by July 26 — and chil­dren younger than 5 by July 10. The gov­ern­ment missed the July 10 dead­line, though it com­pleted more than 50 of the re­unions of chil­dren younger than 5 by Thurs­day and said dozens of oth­ers are in­el­i­gi­ble for re­uni­fi­ca­tion.

‘You can’t put a child in a prison. You can­not. It’s im­moral.’ — Sen. Kirsten Gil­li­brand (D-N.Y.), who has been vis­it­ing shel­ters where im­mi­grant chil­dren are be­ing de­tained

Carolyn Kaster As­so­ci­ated Press

FIRST LADY Me­la­nia Trump vis­its a Phoenix South­west Key fa­cil­ity where im­mi­grant chil­dren are be­ing held on June 28. Since 2008, South­west Key has re­ceived $1.39 bil­lion in grant fund­ing to op­er­ate shel­ters.

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