Texas puts an end to health and safety oversight that protected thousands of migrant children

The 45 state-licensed shelters that provide care for migrant children have opted to remain open without state supervision three months after Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the facilities closed.

Shelters were asked to “end” operations on Monday after the governor’s disaster was proclaimed on May 31, but an emergency rule issued by the state in July provides exemptions that have kept the shelters open for now.

Under the exemptions, these shelters will remain open without state safety and health supervision, while caring for young children, infants and teens arriving on the U.S.-Mexico border without parents.

“Thousands of children should not be detained in unlicensed facilities,” said Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy, executive director of the Galveston-Houston Immigrant Representation Project, which provides legal services to unaccompanied young migrants. He said that in shelters children do not have autonomy as their communication and movement are restricted.

“They are vulnerable in the sense that they do not have the capacity to make any changes to their detained custody or to file any kind of real complaint,” Sanchez Kennedy said.

State standards are being removed despite a recent report by the Children’s Equity Project finding that Texas had some of the strongest regulations and oversight.

“No state met all the different indicators we examined,” said the report’s author, Shantel Meek, a professor at Arizona State University. “That said, Texas became better known than any other state.”

Texas stood especially in the standards of health care, behavior management and supervision.

But without these state regulations in place, which created a set of additional requirements for shelters that house migrant children, as of Tuesday it is up to the federal government to deal with rape and non-compliance issues, according to Meek.

An example: there are likely to be fewer full visits to the shelter. The federal government requires only one visit from federal field personnel every two years, while by Texas standards, the shelters were subject to additional compliance inspection without prior notice by state authorities each year, according to Meek.

State monitors “provide that extra set of eyes, that extra control beyond the feds, especially when the feds are behind,” Meek said.

Last week, a group of 70 medical, religious and immigrant advocacy groups signed a letter to Abbott asking him to restore state oversight of the shelters.

“State regulation and supervision of residential care centers are critical elements for child safety and proper care,” the letter said. “When children are in unlicensed facilities, lack of license guarantees can lead to threats to their health and safety, such as staff shortages, inadequate staff, inadequate services, harmful disciplinary action, and risks of abuse. and physical / sexual trafficking “.

A recent report by Texas Impact, a faith-based advocacy group, found nearly 1,000 state-reported safety and health deficiencies in Texas-licensed migrant child shelters from 2015 to 2020; a third were designated as “high-risk infractions”.

The report revealed serious incidents, including a story in which a male staff member of Southwest Key Casa Antigua in the Rio Grande Valley improperly touched four teenagers. And at the Shiloh Treatment Center in southeast Texas, a staff member obstructed a child’s airway by putting his arms around the child’s neck.

Incidents like these are less likely to be made public without a state license because the data was made available through online reports of state compliance history. Access to similar data at the federal level would require a request for the Freedom of Information Act and could take months to acquire.

Experts such as Mark Greenberg, who headed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Families and Children under the Obama administration, say shelters are unlikely to immediately lower their quality of care, but that Lack of rules and state oversight could have a long-term impact.

“Over time, the standards that had to be complied with will be increasingly advanced in the past, unless the government develops its own standards and its own ability to monitor compliance with those standards,” he said. Greenberg. He is now a senior member of the Institute for Migration Policy.

Proponents of working with migrant children have said they are still waiting to see whether or not the federal government will create specific requirements of its own for Texas facilities, in addition to existing federal standards.

Migrant emergency shelters in Pecos and Fort Bliss, Texas, which are also not subject to state licensing, have been criticized in the past for poor condition and treatment and could be an indicator of what children in shelters will face. of Texas without a license.

As of Aug. 18, Texas health and health services reported that 5,542 unaccompanied migrant children lived in Texas state-licensed or foster care facilities. That’s a third of the total of 14,944 children and teens in federal custody, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Federal authorities captured an average of 500 children each day over the past month.