The number of migrant children in Texas shelters spiked again, reaching a new high under Trump

by Edgar Walters, Ryan Murphy, and Darla Cameron, The Texas Tribune

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services

The number of unaccompanied minor children held in Texas shelters reached a new high in October, months after the administration of President Donald Trump ended its policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.

There were 5,385 children living at privately run shelters for unaccompanied youth as of Oct. 18, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which regulates the federally funded shelters. That’s a record high under the Trump administration, up from 5,099 children last month.

The 5.5 percent increase marks the largest month-over-month growth since the end of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy in June, even as four new shelters opened in the last month.

Shelters are meant to serve as a temporary home for children after they arrive in the U.S., typically without an adult, before they can be placed with U.S.-based sponsors such as family or friends. It’s unclear how much of increase can be attributed to a greater number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, and how much is the result of federal policies that have slowed the rate at which children are paired with sponsors.

U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested 16,658 family members in September, the highest one-month total on record and an 80 percent increase from July, according to the Washington Post. The soaring arrest numbers — coupled with the growing number of kids held in shelters — suggest that while the official policy of family separation at the border may be over, more and more immigrant family units are being disjointed as people cross the border in greater numbers.

But the vast majority of kids in Texas shelters likely arrived unaccompanied. Immigrant advocates say one reason the number of children living in shelters has grown is that the process for placing those kids with sponsor families has slowed significantly under new requirements imposed by the Trump administration. The result is that fewer children are leaving shelters, where they are living for longer periods.

The administration’s hardline immigration policies coincide with a sharp rise in the number of immigrant children living away from their parents. In April, after the U.S. Department of Justice first made public its plan to detain unauthorized adult immigrants — while their children were sent to separate facilities — more than 2,000 children arrived at the more than 30 shelters licensed in Texas.

The policy sent a massive influx of children to shelters, which swelled to capacity, and private groups filed permits to open four new facilities in Texas. The Health and Human Services Commission issued permits for three of those shelters, which will be located in South Texas and operated by Florida-based Comprehensive Health Services Inc., in August. A fourth facility, proposed to be opened in Houston by the nonprofit Southwest Key, is at the center of a lawsuit in which shelter operators allege the city has obstructed their efforts.

The effects of the zero-tolerance policy still remain the reality for more than 400 children who were separated from their parents under policy. The federal government classifies those children as “unaccompanied,” so the data cannot answer how many of them are currently living in Texas shelters.

Many existing facilities have asked regulators for permission to add more beds. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission may decide to grant shelters a capacity variance, which allows them to house more children than they would otherwise be allowed to.

State officials have so far approved 16 facilities to increase their number of beds. As of Oct. 18, there are 5,385 children in state-licensed shelters, which have permission to accommodate up to 6,225 children, according to the health commission. That puts overall capacity at about 87 percent.

Those shelters, licensed as child care providers, have a long history of regulatory inspections that have uncovered serious health and safety deficiencies.

A Texas Tribune review of state records found that, over the last three years, inspectors have found 435 health and safety violations at the facilities, which can house anywhere from 20 to more than 1,500 children at a time. Of those, regulators coded 139 violations as “high” in severity and 166 as “medium high.”

The facilities are required to provide basic care to the children of detained migrants, including medical care and at least six hours of daily schooling. Their inspection reports, though often light on details, paint a picture of the abuses that young children may face in a foreign environment where many face language barriers and a history of trauma from the journey to the U.S.

Another shelter, a hastily built tent city in Tornillo, is being greatly expanded to handle the influx of children. Officials this month said the facility will grow to 3,800 beds— more than 10 times its original capacity to house 360 children. But that facility, a federal installation overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is not regulated by the state, officials said, so it is not reflected in the data.

Counts of children on this page are current as of October 2018, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.


Southwest Key Programs Inc.
Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $204.5 million

Southwest Key Programs, the private contractor operating a converted Walmart in Brownsville as a shelter for more than 1,500 children, is the largest operation in Texas authorized to take in children separated from their parents. Founded in 1987, the nonprofit says its mission is to “provide quality education, safe shelter and alternatives to incarceration for thousands of youth each day.”

Inspectors found 246 violations at the group’s 16 facilities in the last three years, records show. On Oct. 11, 2017, at a Southwest Key facility in San Benito, an employee appeared drunk when he showed up to work. A drug test later found the employee was over the legal alcohol limit to drive. Inspectors also found shampoo dispensers filled with hand sanitizer and bananas that had turned black. In two instances, children were made to wait before receiving medical care: three days for a child with a broken wrist, and two weeks for a child with a sexually transmitted disease.

A spokesman for Southwest Key said the organization had worked to correct the problems identified by regulators. Of the list of violations, spokesman Jeff Eller said: “While it’s not inaccurate, it’s grossly unfair to say that without acknowledging that we acknowledged our mistakes and made immediate corrections.”


BCFS Health and Human Services
Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $49 million

BCFS Health and Human Services is the second-largest contractor operating in Texas. The group operates six facilities that may accept migrant children. It was founded in 1944, according to its website.

At a Harlingen facility owned by BCFS, employees were alleged to have struck up “inappropriate relationships” with children in their care. Children complained of raw and undercooked food, and one child in late 2016 suffered an allergic reaction after a staff member gave the child a snack.

In San Antonio, at another BCFS facility, a staff member last April helped arrange for a child’s family member to send the child money — but when the cash arrived, the staff member kept it. The year before, an employee gave children “inappropriate magazine pages” that depicted naked women, while a few months before, staff members were found to have failed to supervise their wards closely enough to prevent one child from “inappropriately” touching two others.

Reached by phone, a receptionist for BCFS Health and Human Services said she had been told to direct reporters’ questions to federal officials at the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.


Comprehensive Health Services
Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $0

A group called CHSI has applied in August to open three new shelters — two in San Benito and one in Los Fresnos — to care for unaccompanied boys and girls up to 17 years old or as young as infants, documents show. The name refers to Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based company that has previously received contracts from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Their three shelters opened in late September or early August and have a combined capacity of 546.


Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $9.4 million

Upbring operates two facilities that accept unaccompanied minors and children separated from their parents by immigration authorities. The company was previously known as Lutheran Social Services of the South.


Catholic Charities
Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $3.3 million

Catholic Charities, which has worked with the federal government to resettle refugees since at least 1983, operates three shelters for unaccompanied children through its branch at the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.


St. Peter St. Joseph Children’s Home
Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $3.2 million

St. Peter St. Joseph Children’s Home, which began as an orphanage in 1891, according to its website, operates an emergency shelter in San Antonio with a contract to house unaccompanied migrant children.


Shiloh Treatment Center Inc.
Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $2.6 million

Shiloh Treatment Center Inc. was first incorporated in 1995, according to the Houston Chronicle. It first began receiving federal funding to house migrant children in 2013. It has been dogged by allegations of abuse following the 2001 death of Stephanie Duffield, 16, at the center after she was restrained by staff, but the treatment center has been found to be in compliance with state requirements. Shiloh did not respond to a request for comment.


Seton Home
Federal funding received in 2018 budget year so far: $1.5 million

Seton Home, which opened in 1981, according to its website, operates a facility in San Antonio.

Paul Cobler, Annie Daniel and Chris Essig contributed research.

Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor 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. View a complete list.

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