Care­givers for 3,600 mi­grant teens lack com­plete abuse screenings


Nearly ev­ery adult work­ing with chil­dren in the U.S. — from nan­nies to teach­ers to coaches — has un­der­gone state screenings to en­sure they have no proven his­tory of abus­ing or ne­glect­ing kids. One ex­cep­tion: thou­sands of work­ers at two fed­eral de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties hold­ing 3,600 mi­grant teens in the gov­ern­ment’s care, the As­so­ci­ated Press has learned.

The staff isn’t be­ing screened for child abuse and ne­glect at a Mi­ami-based emer­gency de­ten­tion cen­ter be­cause Florida law bans any out­side em­ployer from re­view­ing in­for­ma­tion in its child wel­fare sys­tem. Un­til re­cently at an­other fa­cil­ity hold­ing mi­grant teens in Tornillo, Texas, staff hadn’t even un­der­gone FBI fin­ger­print checks, let alone child wel­fare screenings, a gov­ern­ment re­port found.

The miss­ing screen­ing at both sites in­volves search­ing child pro­tec­tive ser­vices sys­tems to see whether po­ten­tial em­ploy­ees had a ver­i­fied al­le­ga­tion of abuse, ne­glect or aban­don­ment, which could range from hav­ing a foster child run away from a group home to fail­ing to take a sick child to the hos­pi­tal. These al­le­ga­tions of­ten are not crim­i­nally pros­e­cuted and there­fore wouldn’t show up in other screenings.

Tornillo has 2,100 staff for about 2,300 teens; Home­stead has 2,000 staff for about 1,300 teens.

The two fa­cil­i­ties can op­er­ate un­li­censed and with­out re­quired checks be­cause they are lo­cated on fed­eral prop­erty and thus don’t have to com­ply with state child wel­fare laws. Tornillo is on Cus­toms and Border Pro­tec­tion land along the U.s.-mex­ico border, and Home­stead is on a for­mer La­bor Depart­ment Jobs Corps site.

Last week, bi­par­ti­san law­mak­ers from Texas and be­yond called for swift re­forms and pub­lic hear­ings af­ter the AP re­ported that the gov­ern­ment put thou­sands of teens at risk at Tornillo by waiv­ing the se­cu­rity screenings and hav­ing fewer mental health work­ers than needed. And on Tues­day, two mem­bers of Congress called for the im­me­di­ate shut­down of Tornillo.

The gov­ern­ment re­port said the screenings were waived at Tornillo be­cause the agency was un­der pres­sure to open the camp quickly, and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment er­ro­neously as­sumed staff mem­bers al­ready had FBI fin­ger­print checks.

Ex­cept for Home­stead, ev­ery child shel­ter and foster care fa­cil­ity in Florida — in­clud­ing two oth­ers hold­ing mi­grant chil­dren — runs em­ploy­ees’ names through child pro­tec­tive ser­vices records.

State law pro­hibits the Florida Depart­ment of Chil­dren and Fam­i­lies from shar­ing re­sults of those checks more widely due to con­cerns that child pro­tec­tive ser­vices might be re­luc­tant to flag an in­di­vid­ual, and thereby avoid pro­vid­ing ser­vices such as par­ent­ing classes for them, if it could put the per­son’s job in jeop­ardy.

Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment spokesman Mark We­ber said Home­stead didn’t need the ex­ten­sive back­ground screenings.

“Child abuse and ne­glect checks were waived be­cause of the lim­i­ta­tions in the state of Florida and the fin­ger­print back­ground checks con­ducted on em­ploy­ees would show rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion,” he said.

Tornillo launched a month­long pro­gram to run staff through FBI fin­ger­print checks last week in re­sponse to a wave of pub­lic pres­sure prompted by the gov­ern­ment memo and me­dia re­ports about the lack of staff screen­ing there.

Child wel­fare ex­perts say child abuse and ne­glect back­ground screenings are typ­i­cally re­quired be­cause some peo­ple who hurt chil­dren may never be con­victed of crim­i­nal charges se­ri­ous enough to war­rant an FBI red flag but could be charged civilly, which would ap­pear only in state reg­istries.

“An FBI back­ground check doesn’t pro­vide a full and com­plete pic­ture of that in­di­vid­ual’s crim­i­nal his­tory,” said Alonzo Martinez, as­so­ciate coun­selor for com­pli­ance at Hireright, a pri­vate em­ployer back­ground check ser­vice. Lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments aren’t re­quired to en­ter fin­ger­prints of of­fend­ers in the FBI data­base and deeper checks — in­clud­ing re­view­ing state and county child abuse reg­istries — can turn up dif­fer­ent in­for­ma­tion about po­ten­tial ap­pli­cants, Martinez said.

Dur­ing his time serv­ing as the di­rec­tor of the Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment, Scott Lloyd granted screen­ing waivers for both Home­stead and Tornillo, which was al­lowed un­der fed­eral rules since the shel­ters were opened on a tem­po­rary ba­sis. Home­stead has been open for eight months and Tornillo for five, how­ever, with no in­di­ca­tion they will close.

In Au­gust, Lloyd wrote a let­ter to the Wash­ing­ton Post de­fend­ing the shel­ters, say­ing, “The same stan­dard of care we ex­pect for your kids and mine we ex­pect for the kids in Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment care.”

The con­trac­tors for both de­ten­tion cen­ters — Com­pre­hen­sive Health Ser­vices for Home­stead, and BCFS Health and Hu­man Ser­vices for Tornillo — de­ferred to HHS for com­ment. HHS says it is work­ing to safely care for all chil­dren re­ferred to the agency.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion opened Home­stead as a tem­po­rary shel­ter for up to 800 mi­grant teens for 10 months in 2016. Since then, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has bud­geted more than $330 mil­lion for the for-profit com­pany to op­er­ate the fa­cil­ity, ac­cord­ing to an AP re­view of fed­eral con­tracts. The re­view found that Tornillo could cost tax­pay­ers as much as $430 mil­lion this year.

A memo ob­tained by the AP shows the ORR di­rec­tor at the time, Robert Carey, also waived child abuse and ne­glect back­ground checks for Home­stead staff dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Chil­dren at Home­stead wear gov­ern­ment-is­sued clothes and live in dor­mi­to­rystyle bed­rooms in a tightly guarded com­pound sur­rounded by chain-link fence. At Tornillo, they sleep in bunk beds in­side canvas tents; out­side tem­per­a­tures near 100 in the sum­mer and are be­low freez­ing on win­ter nights.

The 13- to 17-year-olds held at Home­stead and Tornillo weren’t sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies at the border this sum­mer. They re­main in gov­ern­ment cus­tody in part be­cause new fed­eral re­quire­ments man­dat­ing more strin­gent back­ground checks on their fam­i­lies have slowed their re­uni­fi­ca­tions, fill­ing shel­ter beds around the coun­try to ca­pac­ity. Al­most all the teens at both fa­cil­i­ties en­tered the U.S. on their own, hop­ing to join rel­a­tives or friends.

Neha De­sai, im­mi­gra­tion di­rec­tor at the Oak­land-based Na­tional Cen­ter for Youth Law, said that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is re­quired to hold chil­dren in li­censed fa­cil­i­ties when they are de­tained for more than a short pe­riod of time.

“Home­stead’s fail­ure to per­form child abuse and ne­glect checks on its staff is just an­other rea­son that the gov­ern­ment in no cir­cum­stances should be hold­ing chil­dren there for more than a few days at a time,” said De­sai. “Yet, we know that nu­mer­ous chil­dren are lan­guish­ing there for months on end.”

‘We know that nu­mer­ous chil­dren are lan­guish­ing there for months on end.’

Neha De­sai Na­tional Cen­ter for Youth Law


A guard walks by toys placed for mi­grant chil­dren by pro­test­ers as they march to Home­stead Tem­po­rary Shel­ter for Un­ac­com­pa­nied Chil­dren in Home­stead, Fla. in June. Nearly ev­ery adult work­ing with chil­dren in the U.S. has un­der­gone state screenings to en­sure they have no proven his­tory of abus­ing or ne­glect­ing kids. One ex­cep­tion: thou­sands of work­ers at this and an­other fed­eral de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity hold­ing 3,600 mi­grant teens in the gov­ern­ment’s care, the As­so­ci­ated Press has learned.

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