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Can Separated Immigrant Children Just Walk Out Of Shelters? Technically, Yes

The shelters are designed to keep kids in, but they’re not detention facilities, and in most cases staff can’t forcibly stop a child from leaving.

Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for unaccompanied minors, is pictured in Brownsville on June 19, 2018.

Hey, Texplainer: Is it true that the children separated from their parents at the border can just walk out of the shelters where they’re being held?

How to properly confine children is a thorny issue in Texas, and that question has been in the news since last month, after a 15-year-old immigrant ran away from a shelter for unaccompanied children and disappeared into the borderlands.

How could a shelter let that happen? Under state and federal guidelines, employees at the Casa Padre shelter in Brownsville, or any other shelter housing immigrant kids, are almost never allowed to forcibly stop a child. Unlike adults apprehended at the border, who may be charged with a crime and placed in a locked-down detention facility, immigrant children are not generally detained.

“We are not a detention center,” Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Southwest Key, which operates the Brownsville shelter, told The New York Times at the time. “We talk to them and try to get them to stay. If they leave the property, we call law enforcement.”

Locking a child up in a highly restrictive environment, such as a juvenile detention center or jail, can be expensive and have deleterious effects on the child’s mental and physical health. And if the minor isn’t charged with an offense, jailing him or her would violate due process rights.

On the other hand, the government has a responsibility to care for and protect children who have been removed from their parents. Children who run away may be at risk of violence or being trafficked.

This back-and-forth has played out for years, with complicated results, in the state’s foster care system. In foster care, kids are removed from their parents if the state believes they have been abused or neglected. Like unaccompanied or separated immigrant children, foster youth are at high risk of becoming victims of exploitation.

A Texas Tribune investigation into the state’s handling of child sex-trafficking victims last year found that police will often charge underage victims with a crime in order to send them to juvenile detention — or to jail if they’re 17 or older — in part to prevent them from running away. Police described the conundrum they faced: They knew the underage victim did not belong behind bars, but they also knew it was very easy for a child to run away from the foster care system and be exploited once again.

About 1,700 children in state custody ran away during fiscal year 2017, according to the most recent runaway child report from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. In one highly publicized case last year, a runaway teen was struck by a car and killed after fleeing from a state office near Houston. While Texas foster kids are wards of the state — as opposed to immigrant children, who stay in privately-run shelters overseen by the federal government and may later be placed in federally-run foster care — the challenges are similar.

If a child goes missing from a state facility, it’s considered an “emergency discharge” and employees are required to report the runaway to law enforcement, according to state guidelines. While most shelters have fences and other physical barriers to discourage a child from leaving, employees have few options when it comes to stopping a runaway. A shelter employee may follow the child and try to talk him or her out of leaving, but in the majority of cases, employees are not allowed to physically restrain the child. There are a few exceptions when a shelter worker may use a “short personal restraint,” such as if the child is suicidal or attempting to run into a busy street.

The number of immigrant children who run away from shelters is unclear but appears to be very small. Eller, the Southwest Key spokesman, told The New York Times that less than 1 percent of all children who have stayed at the shelter ran away. Police records from Brownsville, where Southwest Key’s Casa Padre shelter is located, indicate there have only been six calls reporting a runaway from the shelter’s address in the past five years.

The bottom line: Shelters that hold undocumented immigrant children are not detention facilities, and the children can leave if they choose — staff are generally not allowed to restrain them. But such incidents appear to be rare.

Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor to and former board member of The Texas Tribune. KUT 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. Find a complete list of them here.

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