The number of unaccompanied migrant children held in Texas shelters reached a new high in September, months after the administration of President Donald Trump ended its policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border.
There were 5,099 children living at privately run shelters for unaccompanied youth as of Sept. 20, 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 4,936 children last month.
Asked to explain the increase, an agency spokeswoman directed questions to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Officials there did not immediately respond to an email.
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 an 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.
Most of the children arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied, but across the country there remain more than 400 who were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s now-paused “zero tolerance” policy. The government classifies those children as “unaccompanied,” so the data cannot answer how many of them are living in Texas shelters.
In April, after the U.S. Department of Justice first made public its hard-line policy of detaining unauthorized adult immigrants — while their children were sent to private shelters — 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 initial permits for three of those shelters, which will be in South Texas and operated by Florida-based Comprehensive Health Services, 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.
Even after zero tolerance ended, the number of children living in shelters has remained high. 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 September 20, there are 5,099 children in state-licensed shelters, which have permission to accommodate up to 5,489 children, according to the health commission. That puts overall capacity at about 93 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 September 2018, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
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 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.