The stories across the nation have been shocking. Immigrant children being bullied, physically and sexually abused, over-medicated, improperly restrained and given psychotropic drugs: A litany of horrors taking place inside shelters where they were supposed to be kept safe. Earlier this month, a youth-care worker in Mesa was convicted of abusing at least eight boys.
While there is a renewed focus on shelters for immigrant minors after the Trump administration started to separate families through its “zero-tolerance” policy for those crossing the border illegally, cases of abuse have been documented for years — along with calls and promises for more oversight and transparency.
It’s time Arizona stopped waiting for the federal government to act and take responsibility for protecting these children.
As recently as 2016, a Government Accountability Office report found lapses in supervision at shelters, with missing documents and facilities going years without being visited by monitors. Although officials took steps to improve, problems continue to plague the system.
Care for immigrant minors falls to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which contracts with private operators. Most of the minors at these shelters came to the United States alone and are held for as long as it takes to contact and vet a family member or sponsor in the U.S. who is willing to take them in.
As reported in the Arizona Daily Star, there are more than a dozen shelters in the state — out of about 100 nationwide — with a capacity of more than 1,600 children. In Arizona, most are operated by Southwest Key, including the one in Tucson. The Texas-based nonprofit received almost half a billion dollars this fiscal year from the federal government.
When the Arizona Department of Health Services recently inspected these facilities, it could not substantiate complaints regarding overcrowding and threats to the safety and care of the children there. What it did find were several employees allowed to work without a complete background check, which Southwest Key was quick to remedy once notified.
But even if shelter operators have the best of intentions and are quick to comply when found lacking, their continued growth and care for more and more children puts strains on the system and facilitates lapses that can lead to abuse.
This is exacerbated by the federal government’s current hard-line approach to immigration.
Almost 13,000 children are now in shelters in the U.S., the largest number ever, up from 2,400 in May of last year, according to the New York Times. But the reason is not that more unaccompanied minors are coming to the U.S., but the Trump administration’s policy of asking for fingerprints from all adults in the home where the child would be going. In many cases, the parent or family member is in the country illegally or lives with someone without legal status. Previously, families of children in shelters were not targeted, no matter their own immigration status, when they sought to reunite.
And even in cases where there is a willing sponsor, many have had to wait for months to be vetted, according to the Times.
So far the administration’s response to this increase has been disheartening. Instead of working to expedite children’s passage through these shelters and reduce their time in custody, a temporary facility outside El Paso, Texas, is expected to triple in size to house up to 3,800 children.
If this is the federal government’s strategy , it is more important than ever that Arizona step up and improve oversight for shelters in the state. There are already agreements with ADHS for unannounced monitoring visits — as well as increased reporting requirements to the state agency — but more can be done.
A group of legislators led by State Rep. Kelli Butler want to increase regulations, including giving the Arizona Department of Child Safety authority to investigate the well-being of children held within the immigration system, using the Department of Public Safety online fingerprint check to screen employee applicants, adding employees who abused or neglected children to the DCS database, and larger fines for non-compliance that would go to fund state safety efforts. These are common-sense steps.
Children in these shelters have already lived through family separation — whether willingly or not — and many have experienced violence in their home countries or on their way to the border. Having them risk abuse while in U.S. government care is unacceptable. The state cannot help reunite these kids with their families, but we can make sure they are as safe as possible in Arizona’s shelters.