Texas Detention Center Criticized For Being ‘Baby Jail’ Gets Child Care License Anyway

Oscar Herrera’s (left) wife and daughter are currently in a Texas family detention center. CREDIT: ESTHER YSU-HSI LEE
Oscar Herrera’s (left) wife and daughter are currently in a Texas family detention center. CREDIT: ESTHER YSU-HSI LEE

Texas officials have granted a temporary child care license to an immigration detention center — apparently arguing that mothers benefit from the services there, despite evidence that the facility actually provides inadequate care to immigrant women and children.

The Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS)’s decision to recognize the center as a child care provider has drawn the ire of immigration activists, who admonish family detention centers as “baby jails” that allow for-profit corporations to make more money.

“If ever there was lipstick on a pig, this is it,” Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of Raices, an immigrant legal services group, told the New York Times. “If you want a child care facility, you don’t contract with a for-profit prison company.”

Over the past two years, as a record number of Central Americans have crossed the U.S. border to seek asylum from violence and poverty, the 600-bed Karnes County Residential Center has increased its family detention capacity to hold thousands of immigrant mothers and children. Two other family detention centers located in Dilley, Texas and Leesport, Pennsylvania also serve this purpose.

On its face, Karnes may seem like as ideal of locked-down place as possible to detain mothers and children as they are being processed for deportation or resettlement inside the U.S. There are classrooms, playgrounds, non-institutional clothing, food, and shelter.

But in reality, these centers have been plagued by accusations of neglect and abuse.

A play area is seen at the Karnes County Residential Center, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. Federal officials gave a tour of the immigration detention facility that has been retooled to house adults with children who have been apprehended at the border. Officials estimate the cost will be $140 a day per person. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
A play area is seen at the Karnes County Residential Center, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. Federal officials gave a tour of the immigration detention facility that has been retooled to house adults with children who have been apprehended at the border. Officials estimate the cost will be $140 a day per person. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

During a compliance inspection of the Karnes facility in late March, DFPS found six deficiencies: One child was observed in a bedroom without their mother or staff member present; cleaning carts were left unattended with one child observed running with a spray bottle; playground areas didn’t have enough mulch; child records didn’t have allergies and chronic health conditions on the outside of files or in a visible location; the list of child’s rights didn’t include “the child’s rights to be free from being threatened with the loss of placement or shelter as punishment;” and staff records showed that one employee was not qualified for the position.

Anecdotal evidence has also indicated that officials failed to provide adequate care for children and mothers. Last year, a former Karnes employee testified at a Judiciary Democrats’ Forum on Family Detention that she saw young children regress developmentally, detainees who were placed in isolation for speaking out, and superiors who wanted a “clean paper trail” because the facility was under constant audits. The husband of a woman and child detained at Karnes told ThinkProgress that his family had been treated poorly in the detention center and that the food was “so bad.” Advocates have also told ThinkProgress that mothers who went on hunger strikes at Karnes were allegedly locked in a dark room after protesting conditions. And during a public hearing in December 2015 to discuss the licensing requirements for the facilities, advocates including mothers who were detained spoke out against the center.

Issues with immigrant detention centers have wound their way up the legal system. Last year, a federal judge ruled that children must be held in licensed facilities that receive regular and comprehensive oversight by an independent child welfare agency.

There have been a few minor victories for immigrant advocates since this ruling. Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson acknowledged, for instance, that the administration would need to “make substantial changes in our detention practices with respect to families with children.” The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) announced in March that it would conduct unannounced inspections at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities. And the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services has not renewed a child care license for the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport.