Cen­ters’ staffers lack full checks

Work­ers car­ing for teens not screened for ne­glect, child abuse

The Dallas Morning News - - Nation - Martha Men­doza and Garance Burke, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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 staff isn’t be­ing screened for child abuse and ne­glect at a Mi­ami­based emer­gency de­ten­tion cen­ter be­cause Florida law bans any out­side em­ployer from re­view­ing in­for­ma­tion in its child wel­fare sys­tem. Un­til re­cently at a bor­der fa­cil­ity in Tornillo, Texas, near El Paso, that’s hold­ing mi­grant teens, 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, Fla., 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, a bi­par­ti­san group of law­mak­ers from Texas and be­yond called for swift re­forms and pub­lic hear­ings after a re­port 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.

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.

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 when they will close.

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