The Slatest

Report: Nearly Half of Funding for Child Migrant Care Went to Shelters With Histories of Abuse

A former Walmart Supercenter under the name Southwest Key Programs, Casa Padre, now being used a migrant children's center.
A former Walmart Supercenter now being used as a migrant children’s shelter in Brownsville, Texas.
Loren Elliott/Getty Images

A new report has found that the U.S. government has continued to place undocumented migrant children in shelters operated by private companies that were accused of endangering children over the year, including serious allegations of neglect and sexual and physical abuse. Among the accusations are several startling charges in a lawsuit against one operator of drugging migrant children with heavy antipsychotic medications that made them lethargic, physically incapacitated, and afraid.

Reveal, a publication from the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Texas Tribune reported Tuesday that in documents for dozens of these private companies contracted to operate youth shelters for migrant children, state inspectors found serious problems with their record of care. But in almost all cases, the federal government continued to renew contracts.

The allegations date back more than a decade. While the recent influx of migrant children as a result of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy has put a further strain on these facilities, increasing the likelihood that more children will be subject to neglect and abuse, the evidence implicates a persistent carelessness by the Health and Human Services Department even under the Obama administration.

According to Reveal, since 2014, the Office of Refugee Resettlement paid $3.4 billion to these private organizations, many of which are religious groups or nonprofits. Nearly half of that, $1.5 billion, went to 13 organizations accused of serious violations.

And in Texas, which has most of the grants, shelters were slapped with more than 400 citations. Among the allegations in Texas alone:

• Failure to get a child or teenager medical treatment for a burn, a broken wrist, and a sexually transmitted disease.
• An instance in which the staff gave a child medicine she was allergic to.
• “Inappropriate contact” between children and staff.
• One instance in which a staff member gave children a pornographic magazine.

A few of the shelters closed after serious allegations, but according to Reveal, many closed temporarily, only to reopen under a different branding or in a different location, but continued to rack up citations and allegations. In one instance, a worker in Florida was convicted last year of trading sexually explicit photos with children at a shelter. The facility closed, then reopened with a $30 million contract, under which it housed more than 1,000 children.

The HHS did end its contract with two shelter providers, but in one case only after the provider accumulated more than 100 violations. Other providers, such as one that had more than 246 citations, remained open.

Some of the most alarming allegations come from a pending lawsuit, in which parents have accused the Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas, of forcibly injecting their children with antipsychotic drugs to keep them calm in the past couple years. In another report from Reveal about the lawsuit, a mother reports that her child, on the drugs, fell repeatedly and hit her head, putting her in a wheelchair. One woman told Reveal that she came to suspect her son, who was 9 when he entered Shiloh’s care last November, was being drugged after she saw him “completely hypnotized and lethargic” in a video. His medical records ultimately proved her suspicion correct. She said she signed no consent form and that she had repeatedly objected to the use of psychotropic drugs. The shelter, which has been funded by HHS since 2013, had been accused in 2001 of causing the death of a 16-year-old girl after the staff restrained her.

In a statement, the HHS said, “Congress gave HHS the responsibility to care for these children and teenagers, and we take this legal mandate very seriously.”