Care­givers for 3,600 mi­grant teens lack com­plete abuse checks

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - By Martha Men­doza and Garance Burke

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 month-long 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.

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