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Taxpayers have paid more than $1.5 billion in the past four years to private companies operating immigrant youth shelters accused of serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse, an investigation by Reveal and The Texas Tribune has found.
In nearly all cases, the federal government has continued to place migrant children with the companies even after serious allegations were raised and after state inspectors cited shelters with deficiencies, government and other records show.
Since 2003, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has awarded nearly $5 billion in grants through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, mostly to religious and nonprofit organizations in 18 states, to house children who arrive in the country unaccompanied. The program grew quickly in 2014, when around 70,000 children crossed the southern border alone.
Now this web of private facilities, cobbled together to support children with nowhere else to go, is beginning to hold a new population: the more than 2,000 children who arrived with their parents but were separated from them because of a Trump administration policy.
In Texas, where the resettlement agency awarded the majority of the grants, state inspectors have cited homes with more than 400 deficiencies, about one-third of them 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.
In October, an employee appeared drunk when he showed up to work at a facility operated by Southwest Key Programs in San Benito, Texas. A drug test later found he was over the legal alcohol limit to drive. That was among the 246 violations state inspectors found at Southwest Key’s facilities, including rotten bananas and shampoo dispensers filled with hand sanitizer.
Representatives for Southwest Key Programs, which also operates a converted Walmart in Brownsville as a shelter for more than 1,000 children, did not return phone calls and an email seeking comment.
Last year, a youth care worker at a Florida shelter for migrant children was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she admitted to trading sexually explicit photos and text messages with minors at the shelter. That facility later closed but recently reopened under a more than $30 million contract to house 1,000 children.
In New York, a Guatemalan boy was sexually assaulted by an older boy at a shelter in 2013, according to a doctor’s report, and was treated at a hospital. After he was reunited with his mother, she received a hospital bill but, she later said, was told only that there had been “an incident with a boy.”
At a facility in Maine run by a behavioral and mental health nonprofit, a social worker remained on the job for months after state regulators received a complaint in 2016 accusing him of having sex with an adult client.
In those cases and dozens of others reviewed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and The Texas Tribune, federal officials continued sending children who crossed the border to the shelters after the incidents came to light. Since 2014, 13 organizations that faced serious allegations or citations shared the $1.5 billion total – nearly half of what the federal government spent to house immigrant children in that time.
Records reviewed indicate only two cases in which the agency terminated an agreement with one of the 13 shelter providers. One occurred after state regulators cited a Texas company, International Educational Services, with more than 100 deficiencies at its nine operations, including inappropriate sexual contact between staff and children, harsh punishment and lapses in medical care.
A spokesman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission said it was not up to the state to make contracting decisions for a facility that cares for migrant children.
Texas “is not a party to the contract between ORR (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) and the shelters and any questions on the operation of this program should be directed to either ORR or the facilities themselves,” spokesman John Reynolds said in an email.
Occasionally, facilities changed names, switched locations or voluntarily closed some branches after problems were identified.
The sudden addition of thousands of children is straining these shelters, heightening the risk for neglect and abuse. In the summer of 2014, federal officials faced a similar rush to increase capacity for thousands of children. One contractor compared that period with “changing the tires on a moving school bus.”
That comment was in response to a federal audit that found that His House, a shelter in Florida, “might not have followed” the resettlement agency’s policies for 724 children regarding medical care, providing “appropriate clothing” and running background checks on adults accepting custody of children.
The audit also found that the shelter “might have placed federal funds totaling 9 million dollars at risk of mismanagement or misappropriation.”
Images in recent days show children warehoused in a tent city in Tornillo, Texas, guarded by Department of Homeland Security officers dressed in body armor and carrying long guns. But that facility is a temporary way station. From there, immigrant children resettled through the Office of Refugee Resettlement often are sent into the messy reality of foster care and shelters designed for unaccompanied minors.
Homes with worst issues keep getting grants
A case in point is the Shiloh Treatment Center, a mobile home complex-turned-child care center. Located near rural Manvel, Texas, the center was founded in 1995 by Clay Dean Hill, who is now 69. In 2013, the resettlement agency began funding the shelter, sending more than $25 million in grants over five years.
In 2001, Stephanie Duffield, 16, died after being restrained by staff. Following her death, Shiloh was found to be “in compliance” with state requirements, according to the refugee resettlement office. Since then, Shiloh has been dogged by allegations of child abuse, leading Brazoria County’s district attorney, Jeri Yenne, to call for increased monitoring of the shelter.
Children have died at two other programs affiliated with Hill, Behavior Training Research Inc. and Daystar Residential Inc. Between 1993 and 2010, three children died after being restrained at those facilities. In 2002, Latasha Bush, 15, died from asphyxia. Eight years later, Michael Keith Owens, 16, died after being restrained inside a closet. Both were ruled homicides.
Daystar closed after Owens’ death. Behavior Training Research remains registered as an active domestic for-profit corporation.
Over the last three years, Texas inspectors found eight deficiencies at Shiloh, including poorly supervised medication inside the facility and overdue background check renewals for staff.
Maribel Bernardez’s 9-year-old son landed at Shiloh after being referred for what staff viewed as psychological issues. Reveal and The Texas Tribune are not publishing his name at his mother’s request.
Bernardez, a 34-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras, had spent nearly a year in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas before she was transferred and later released, in February 2016.
During that time period, she had gone on a hunger strike to demand her release while awaiting her asylum hearing and eventually was allowed to post bond. But Bernardez says she never fought as hard as she did during the nearly six months that her son was housed and drugged at the Shiloh Treatment Center.
Bernardez’s son had lived with her sister in Honduras but made his way north last October with a cousin to ask for asylum and reunite with his mother, who now lives in New Orleans. He said he made sure to present a copy of his birth certificate with contact information for his mother. After a short stay in a shelter in the Houston area, he was referred to a psychiatrist for evaluation.
Between November and April, medical records show that Bernardez’s son was administered psychotropic drugs. She said she repeatedly objected and did not sign any consent form.
The Shiloh Treatment Center has not responded to a request for comment about the case. The federal resettlement agency has not responded either.
Meanwhile, a caseworker assigned to the boy’s case asked Bernardez to wire her money, saying she would give her son things he wanted from the outside world. And her son says he and other Central American immigrant children routinely were physically assaulted – including in front of other staffers.
“There was the man that hit me,” he said.
Shiloh has been awarded $26 million in federal money since 2013 from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to operate a residential treatment center for unaccompanied minors. The agency contracts with Shiloh to house, educate and medicate children.
Records indicate that staff noted that Bernardez’s son often talked about wanting to leave the shelter. On at least one occasion, he tried to run away to find his mom. And staff members noted what they called sexual behavior: One time, he used a Fruit Roll-Up to simulate a penis.
Multiple text messages indicate that Bernardez was in frequent contact with her son’s caseworker, who used WhatsApp video calls to allow Bernardez to see her son. Bernardez says she noticed that he looked and acted markedly different.
“He was completely hypnotized and lethargic,” said Bernardez, who said she asked for a list of the drugs he was being given. Another person associated with Shiloh sent her a screenshot of the psychotropic drugs her son was being administered.
In April, Bernardez learned her son would be going to court, and she made it clear that she wanted desperately to attend and provide him counsel. Bernardez never heard from any attorney, however, and it appears no attorney was assigned to the case.
Bernardez’s son was released to her on April 21. Eight months pregnant at the time, she drove from New Orleans to Manvel to pick him up. Since then, she’s worked with a psychiatrist to try to taper her son off drugs.
Bernardez said she doesn’t have an attorney to represent her or her son in their upcoming asylum cases. And she doesn’t know whether talking about what her son went through will change anything.
Sexual abuse allegations
Several companies that house migrant children have employed workers accused of sexual misconduct and abuse, Reveal and The Texas Tribune found.
KidsPeace National Centers for Kids in Crisis, a nonprofit headquartered in Pennsylvania, faced troubling allegations at its branches in Minnesota and Maine.
In 2016, KidsPeace employed social worker Kelly F. O’Rourke, then 51, even though state regulators in Maine received complaints accusing him of having a sexual relationship with an adult client. O’Rourke continued practicing six months after the complaint was filed with the Maine State Board of Social Worker Licensure.
In a Portland Press Herald interview, a corporate spokesman for KidsPeace said the organization routinely performed criminal background checks on potential employees and declined additional comment.
O’Rourke pleaded guilty in January 2017 to sexual assault involving his client and of violating the conditions of his bail by contacting her.
Between 2009 and 2016, KidsPeace Mesabi Academy in Buhl, Minnesota, received 64 complaints regarding staff, care and the treatment of the children housed at the center. Internal and external investigations were carried out on Mesabi Academy in 2016 following reports of three boys being sexually abused.
St. Louis County confirmed that the center had not reported several allegations of sexual abuse to the authorities over the years. Mesabi Academy closed its doors in July 2016.
In late 2013, an 11-year-old Guatemalan boy and his sister arrived at The Children’s Village, a short-term residential care center for youth almost 25 miles outside New York City. Their mother had been waiting for a “coyote” – someone paid to bring immigrants across the border – to safely bring her children to her in Atlanta. Instead, they were caught by Border Patrol agents and placed in the care of the refugee resettlement office.
Not long after their arrival in Dobbs Ferry, New York, the young boy was sexually assaulted by one of the older children at the shelter, according to his mother in an interview with Public Radio International.
The mother received a phone call that her son would be flown to Atlanta after spending the night in a New York hospital. The mother told PRI that shelter officials told her that there had been “an incident,” but her son was “fine” and they would give her son a police report detailing what happened. But the son arrived in Atlanta without any records.
When the mother spoke to her son, he told her that he was in pain. She took him to an Atlanta hospital, which she said concluded that he had been sexually assaulted.
The only other documentation on the incident the mother received was a bill for $800 from the New York hospital.
Last month, His House Children’s Home – a faith-based nonprofit program in Miami Gardens, Florida – was at the center of another refugee resettlement office scandal. Evin Daly, a court-ordered guardian for children, reported his concerns to Florida’s child abuse hotline that staff at the 10-cottage facility treated children like “virtual prisoners in a compound with a fence and a locked gate” and “caregivers sometimes have sex with each other while on duty.”
According to a review by the federal government, His House served 1,900 children during 2014. The resettlement office found some case files “lacked evidence of background investigations on sponsors” and others “had other documentation errors” in a report published in December 2017.
Reveal reached out to His House’s founder, its executive director and the director of its Unaccompanied Alien Children program. None responded.
Merice Perez Colon, an employee of a temporary shelter in Homestead, Florida, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in November for engaging in sexually inappropriate behavior with minors housed at the shelter. In one case, she asked a 15-year-old boy for a pornographic video of him, which he provided.
The shelter, which shut down suddenly in April 2017, reopened in February after the federal health agency awarded it a contract of $20 million, which grew to more than $30 million after the number of children housed doubled from 500 to 1,000.
Few companies lose grants
Of about 70 entities that won grants from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, only two did not have their contracts renewed following a series of confirmed complaints.
At the end of March, the resettlement agency did not renew grant funding to International Educational Services Inc., a resettlement program with several shelters across Cameron County. The company closed operations but never publicly acknowledged the reasons why.
Yet between 2016 and 2018, the Texas health department reported 116 deficiencies following 349 inspections of the company’s shelters, which included unsupervised firearms left around foster homes, inappropriate contact between a teacher and a child in care and a child in care sustaining a second-degree burn, the causes of which were unknown.
Almost six hours northeast, the Galveston Multicultural Institute, Galveston’s branch of Children’s Center Inc., had all children in its care removed by the Administration for Children and Families following complaints of child abuse and neglect issued to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in March 2016. The resettlement agency stopped its funding that same year.
In suburban Washington, D.C., the resettlement agency had contracted with the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center to house migrant children in a secure, jail-like setting. The federal government paid $7.3 million to house children there until 2016.
In early 2017, with a dip in local juvenile crime and no more federal money coming in, local officials considered cutting its budget entirely.
Instead, in August, the resettlement agency came back with a $4 million contract to house 30 more migrant children in the secure facility for one year. The agency cited “an unusual and compelling urgency” for the contract, adding that it was "at capacity for secure beds.”
One way these shelters continue to receive government funding has been to voluntarily close any subsidiaries or strategically rebrand themselves following any allegations tied to the mistreatment of children in their care.
In the case of KidsPeace, the parent company closed operations at Mesabi Academy but not at its other shelters across the U.S. With Clay Dean Hill’s programs, it was a more complex rebranding of the Daystar Residential and Behavior Training Program following the deaths there. Hill subsumed all properties and facilities under another one of his registered nonprofits, the then-lesser-known Shiloh Treatment Center.
In 2013, Lutheran Social Services of the South, a nonprofit subsidiary of Lutheran Social Services Inc., was suspended by the state following the death of a baby at a foster home in Cedar Park. After implementing better protocols and accountability measures, the company rebranded itself as Upbring.
A spokesperson for Upbring said the rebranding was an effort to clear up confusion about the organization: “A more inclusive, dynamic, descriptive name was desirable and Upbring was settled upon in 2015.”
The company still raised several concerns in state inspections between 2015 and 2018 after reports that “a caregiver had allowed an individual with an extensive criminal history background that posed immediate risk to children in care to live in the home and have unsupervised access to children in care” and that a former case manager had signed documentation to allow a child to live in a foster home where a person who had a serious criminal history also lived.
Another inspection found children's personal items and other areas in the home infested with roaches.
New grants to be awarded
The Office of Refugee Resettlement currently pays most of these organizations under grants awarded in 2016. In May, the agency announced its latest round of three-year grants to house migrant children.
This offers another opportunity to remove grantees from the program – as well as a window into the agency’s plans for the program. The deadline is June 29.
The agency wrote that it anticipates paying $500 million for low-security shelter placements, up from $100 million in 2016, and doubling the number of grant winners. For the more secure, jail-like settings, the agency plans to more than double its spending from $9 million to $20 million.
Following its rekindled relationship with the agency this year, the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Commission had planned to hire a coordinator for its unaccompanied minor program. Those plans abruptly changed this week.
On Tuesday, local officials announced they would stop participating in the resettlement agency’s shelter program when their current contract runs out at the end of August. Alexandria Mayor Allison Silberberg called the family separation policy “unacceptable” and said she’d been assured that no children had been housed at the facility after being separated from their parents.
That, which followed local outcry against the contract, may be the first case in which a facility has ended its partnership with the resettlement agency in response to the Trump administration’s new family separation policy.
Sohyeon Hwang, Susie Neilson and Matt Smith of Reveal; John Sepulvado of KQED; and Paul Cobler, Darla Cameron and Ryan Murphy of The Texas Tribune contributed to this story.
The Texas Tribune is investigating how families on both sides of the border are being impacted by the "zero tolerance" policy. We'd like to hear your stories. Email investigative editor Dave Harmon at email@example.com.
Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor to and former board member of The Texas Tribune. Upbring has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. The Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Clarification: This story was updated to note that a Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokesman said it was not up to the state to make contracting decisions rather than licensing decisions about shelters for immigrant children.