Health Agency to Press Forward with Licensing Child Detention Centers

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.
Child welfare advocates, social workers and asylum-seekers described sterile, prison-like conditions in Texas’ immigrant family detention centers at a December hearing. Now, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission is considering a proposal to license those centers as child care facilities.  Alexa Garcia-Ditta

Update, Friday, February 12:

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission announced Friday that it would approve a child care licensing rule for immigrant family detention centers. The rule goes into effect March 1, after which time detention centers can begin applying for licenses. State health officials said that public hearings will be a mandatory part of the application process.

Original Story:

A proposal to license two immigrant family detention centers in Texas as child care facilities is moving forward, state officials said Thursday.

The Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) has submitted a proposed rule that would create a new child care licensing category for detention centers to the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) for consideration.

The proposal is now in HHSC’s hands; officials were unable to tell the Observer when the commission is expected to make a final decision.

At a public DFPS advisory council meeting Thursday, department commissioner John Specia didn’t elaborate on the specifics of the proposal, and it’s unclear whether DFPS submitted an amended version to HHSC after hundreds of Texans wrote to the agency, largely opposing the proposal, late last year.

When the Observer requested a copy of the submitted language, DFPS spokesperson Patrick Crimmins responded by email that “the language is not considered public while the rulemaking process is underway.” The only public comment period ended in December, Crimmins said, and the language will not be made available until HHSC makes a final decision.

That didn’t stop several immigration, child welfare and human rights activists from testifying Thursday against the rule change, reiterating their argument that the state’s motivation is not the wellbeing of detained children, but rather the enforcement of federal immigration policy.

In January, state officials acknowledged that the federal government pushed Texas to issue child care licenses to keep the family detention centers open, and the state agreed to try.

Austin immigration attorney Virginia Raymond, who represents migrant mothers and children pro bono, implored Specia and DFPS council members to do whatever they could to stop the licensure.

“I want to ask you use all of your influence to prevent the adoption” of the rule, she said, so as not to “pervert” the department’s mission of protecting children.

The Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania is the only other immigrant family detention facility in the country. In late January, the state refused to renew, and then revoked, that facility’s child care license.

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

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