Experts, Activists Challenge Detention Child Care Licenses

Dozens of Texans who oppose child care licensing for detention facilities, including social workers and asylum-seekers themselves, appeared at a three-hour he
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
Child welfare advocates, social workers and asylum-seekers described sterile, prison-like conditions in Texas’ immigrant family detention centers, which the state is currently considering licensing as child care facilities.

Dozens of activists gathered for a public hearing and press conference in Austin on Wednesday, hoping to block family detention centers from becoming licensed child care facilities.

One woman, who was held in a South Texas detention center for 11 months, told reporters that she and her son fled their home country of Guatemala in 2014, hoping to secure asylum in the United States. Upon their arrival, Hilda — who asked that their last name not be used — and 9-year-old Ivan were placed in the Karnes County Residential Center, one of the two federal family detention centers currently housing an estimated 2,000 migrant women and children in Texas.

During their internment at Karnes, Hilda said, her son did not get proper medical care when he was sick, and Hilda watched as other children grew thin and often fainted, because of the poor quality of the food. She described a sterile, prison-like environment, where guards would only bring out toys and blankets for children when federal officials would visit the facility.

“Many [children] cry and want to leave,” the 27-year-old mother told reporters outside the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) in Austin. “It’s very sad for a child to live there, for my son and many more children.”

What Hilda and her son experienced hardly constitutes child care, according to immigrant rights and child welfare advocates who are calling on the state to refuse child care facility licenses for the Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley — both family detention centers owned by private, for-profit prison corporations and run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This summer, a federal judge ordered migrant children to be released from family detention centers, citing “deplorable conditions” in violation of the 1997 Flores v. Meese agreement, which states that children should not be held in unlicensed facilities.

In September, DFPS began trying to keep the detention facilities open to house women and children by creating a new child care licensing category for family detention centers. But Grassroots Leadership, an Austin nonprofit that has fought for the closure of family detention centers since 2006, filed suit against DFPS in order to block the licensure, and a Travis County district court halted the state’s efforts in late November. Instead, ruled Judge Karin Crump, the state would have to complete the normal administrative process required when creating new child care licensing rules and hold a public hearing.

That hearing took place Wednesday over the course of three hours at DFPS headquarters, where activists called the agency’s attempt to secure child care licenses for detention centers a way to “legitimize the detention of children,” which would perpetuate the traumatic and emotional impact of the violence and persecution migrant families experienced in their home countries.

Detention “causes deep psychological impacts that are often irreversible later in life,” Laura Guerra Cardus, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas, told agency officials. “Problems with the Karnes and Dilley centers already emerged. Children are experiencing hair loss, weight loss, regression to infantile states and even suicidal ideation.”

More than 40 witnesses appeared before DFPS officials, all opposing the agency’s process.

Immigration lawyers who represent families imprisoned in Karnes and Dilley shared the troubling conditions their clients face daily: poor food, hostile and belittling treatment by staff, little to no medical or mental health care, threats of separation of mothers and children, and placement in cold holding cells without food or water.

Virginia Raymond, a pro bono immigration attorney in Austin who represents families in Karnes, said during the hearing that her clients are often instructed by guards to simply give their children water when they feel sick, instructions that she said amount to “medical neglect.”

“To lock children up against their will, and against the will of their parents, is abuse, per se,” she said.

Olivia Lopez worked as the lead social worker inside the Karnes facility from October 2014 to April 2015. She told DFPS officials that she was routinely silenced when she noticed a mother or child suffering and she was reprimanded for assisting residents with the facility’s grievance process.

“The social work at Karnes meant something very different from the social work that I’m trained and licensed to do,” she said during the hearing, adding that she witnessed two children being taken to an emergency room after their medical needs weren’t attended to right away.

In 2009, the Obama administration ended its practice of detaining migrant families and children after immigration lawyers and activists unearthed numerous allegations of human rights violations at the T. Don Hutto family detention center in Taylor, north of Austin. However, the federal government restarted the policy last year when thousands of unaccompanied minors and families fleeing poverty and gang violence in their countries of origin sought refuge in Texas.

The Karnes and Dilley facilities house women and children from countries like Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico seeking asylum in the United States. Often, they carry the trauma from persecution and violence with them, said Laurie Cook Heffron, a social work researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who testified Wednesday. For children, detention can compound the negative effects of that trauma.

“The restrictive nature of detention facilities and the highly controlled movement and regimented schedules can retrigger mental health outcomes associated with gender-based violence,” Cook Heffron told DFPS officials. “Research on children in immigration detention centers shows that children may develop mental and physical health difficulties directly from the detention itself.”

Paul Morris, DFPS assistant commissioner for child care licensing, said licensing the family detention centers as child care facilities would actually increase oversight, and told the crowded hearing room that the agency would conduct periodic investigations to ensure state standards are being met.

The agency will continue to take public comment on the issue until December 14. Julie Moody, a spokesperson for the agency, said DFPS has “no time frame” for implementing the new licensing category and that it won’t make any decisions before the end of the year.

“Careful consideration will be made from all the comments at today’s public hearing and those submitted as written testimony,” she said.

Alexa Garcia-Ditta is a staff writer (and former intern) covering women's health, reproductive health and health care access.

Published at 5:30 pm CST