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Thousands of Children Still Live in Texas Shelters after End of ‘Zero Tolerance’

New data shows the number of children held in privately run shelters in Texas remains higher than normal


Even as federal officials said they were working to reunite separated immigrant children with their parents, the number of children in Texas’ privately run shelters fell by only 88 between July 13 and Aug. 7.

The Trump administration said it would reunify families separated under the now-paused "zero tolerance" policy, but new data shows the number of children held in privately run shelters in Texas remains higher than normal, and has fallen by less than 2 percent in the past month.

More than 2,000 children have arrived at the 31 shelters licensed in Texas since April, when the U.S. Department of Justice first made public its hardline policy of detaining unauthorized adult immigrants — while their children were sent to private shelters — at the southern border.

As a result, the shelters, which are funded by the federal government and licensed by the state, are operating at close to capacity, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The majority of sheltered children arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied. After April, an influx of children appeared to consist mostly of the more than 2,500 children who migrated with their parents and were separated under the zero-tolerance policy. The Trump administration has said nearly 2,000 of these children have so far been reunited with their parents, but others remain in shelters because their parents were deported.

It is unclear how much of the continued growth is a result of the zero-tolerance policy. The data doesn't distinguish between the two groups of migrants because, once children are separated from their families, the government considers them unaccompanied.

To cope with the influx of children, the state-licensed 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 14 facilities to increase their number of beds. As of July 13, there are 4,936 children in state-licensed shelters, which have permission accommodate up to 5,385 children, according to the health commission. That puts overall capacity at about 92 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, can house up to 360 unaccompanied 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 July 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 October 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.


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. It rebranded itself after implementing better protocols following the 2013 death of a 1-year-old girl at one of its foster homes.

A spokesperson for Upbring said the rebranding was an effort to clear up confusion about the organization: "A more inclusive, dynamic, descriptive name was desirable and Upbring was settled upon in 2015."

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.

The Children’s Center Inc.

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

The Children's Center Inc., based in Galveston, does not currently accept federal funds to care for unaccompanied minors, but it is licensed to serve up to 32 children, according to state regulators.

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.