The Trump administration has been sending the young children and babies separated from their parents at the U.S. border to “tender age” facilities — dozens of which have a history of sexual and physical abuse, neglect, and a host of other safety violations.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday evening that children are being sent to at least three facilities in South Texas — in Combes, Raymondville, and Brownsville — with the government planning to open a fourth in Houston, which would house more than 200 children in a warehouse that once served as shelter for people displaced by Hurricane Harvey. According to the AP, the centers have been repurposed to accommodate young children, but advocates are skeptical.
“The thought that they are going to be putting such little kids in an institutional setting? I mean it is hard for me to even wrap my mind around it,” Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told the AP. “Toddlers are being detained.”
A recent report by The Texas Tribune found that dozens of facilities licensed to care for immigrant children who have been separated from their parents have been cited for egregious health and safety violations, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse. Many of the shelters are operated by private companies and have received more than $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds.
Despite these allegations, the government has continued to place immigrant children in the care of such facilities. As the Tribune reported, since 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services has awarded funding through the Office of Refugee Resettlement to companies to house unaccompanied immigrant children, a population that grew substantially in 2014 when roughly 70,000 children crossed the U.S. border.
Recently, children who have been forcibly separated from their parents have been added to the mix, thanks to Trump administration policy. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will allow for the prosecution of all people, including asylum seekers, who cross into the United States outside of ports of entry or who make false statements to immigration officials. As a result, children are separated from their families while their parents await prosecution. In the span of less than two months, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents at the U.S. border.
“We have specialized facilities that are devoted to providing care to children with special needs and tender age children,” Steven Wagner, an HHS official, told the AP. “They’re not government facilities per se, and they have very well-trained clinicians, and those facilities meet state licensing standards for child welfare agencies, and they’re staffed by people who know how to deal with the needs — particularly of the younger children.”
But the Tribune’s report suggests otherwise. Texas state inspectors have cited facilities with more than 400 violations, a third of which are serious:
Allegations included staff members’ failure to seek medical attention for children. One had a burn, another a broken wrist, a third a sexually transmitted disease. In another shelter, staff gave a child medicine to which she was allergic, despite a warning on her medical bracelet. Inspectors also cited homes for “inappropriate contact” between children and staff, including a case in which a staff member gave children a pornographic magazine.
The Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas is one such facility. Formerly a mobile home complex, the center was founded in 1995 and, in 2013, began receiving federal funding from the resettlement agency. In 2001, a teenage girl died after being restrained by staff. Since then, the center has repeatedly come under fire for claims of child abuse. Between 1993 and 2010, three children have died in two other programs affiliated with the founder of the Shiloh Treatment Center. One of those programs, Behavior Training Research, still remains open and registered as a for-profit organization.
“The facilities that they have for the most part are not licensed for tender age children,” Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the AP. Brane met with a 4-year-old girl in diapers in a McAllen facility currently housing migrant families. “There is no model for how you house tons of little children in cots institutionally in our country. We don’t do orphanages, our child welfare has recognized that is an inappropriate setting for little children.”
Detention centers in other parts of the country have also been cited for similar violations. A Florida shelter for migrant children was shut down last year after one worker admitted to trading sexually explicit photos and text messages with children housed at the shelter. But it reopened last month under a government order, and a more than $30 million contract, to shelter 1,000 children.
At a New York shelter, a Guatemalan boy was sexually assaulted by an older boy in 2013. He was treated at a hospital, but when he was reunited with his mother and she received a hospital bill, she was only told that there was an “incident” with another boy.
A shelter in Minnesota received more than 60 complaints in the span of seven years, including reports of three boys being sexually abused.
Last month, a faith-based shelter in Florida, known as His House Children’s Home, was cited for treating children like “virtual prisoners.” The center was also reported for neglect, as “caregivers sometimes have sex with each other while on duty.”
These violations did not stop federal officials from sending young children to the facilities or from funding the centers with taxpayer dollars. The Tribune found only two cases in which the government terminated its agreement with shelter providers for reasons including sexual abuse by staff toward children, neglect of medical care, and harsh punishment. The government in 2017 considered shutting down one facility in northern Virginia, which houses immigrant children in a “jail-like” setting, but ultimately decided against it, awarding the facility with $4 million contract to house more children for another year.
According to the Tribune, the resettlement agency funds most of the facilities under 2016 grants and announced its latest round of grants to shelter immigrant children in May, with a deadline of June 29.