Judge Halts Child Care License for Dilley Detention Center

Citing the potential for abuse at the center, a Travis County judge prevented Texas’ child welfare agency from licensing the facility for child care.

The entrance to the 500-bed Karnes County Residential Center for detained immigrant moms and kids.
Alexa Garcia-Ditta
The entrance to the 500-bed Karnes County Residential Center for detained immigrant moms and kids.

A state district judge has temporarily halted Texas’ efforts to license the second of two immigrant family detention centers in the state as a child care facility.

On Wednesday, Travis County Judge Karin Crump ruled that Texas’ emergency child care license rules — devised specifically for the detention centers — could put children detained in the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley at risk of abuse.

In her order, Crump took issue with a new Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) rule that allows children to stay in rooms with unrelated adults.

The new rules “allow, and have allowed, for situations with children that are dangerous and this temporary injunction addresses those concerns,” Crump said, reading from her order in court. As evidence, Crump pointed to sexual abuse allegations made by a plaintiff. The woman alleged in court documents that her daughter had been spoken to and touched inappropriately by another woman sharing their room at the Karnes County Residential Center in South Texas.

Crump issued the Dilley injunction after a seven-hour hearing Wednesday. The order leaves in place a child care license issued in April to the Karnes County facility.

In May, mothers detained with their children at Dilley and Karnes City filed suit against DFPS, arguing that the agency has no authority to issue child care licenses. The Austin nonprofit Grassroots Leadership is also a plaintiff in the suit. The Dilley and Karnes facilities currently hold about 1,800 women and children, many of whom are asylum-seekers and refugees from Mexico and Central America.

Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, praised Crump’s decision in comments to reporters after the hearing.

“What we heard over the last few weeks, and I think what we’ve known, is that the reason for the licenses was not about the protection of children,” he said.

At issue in Wednesday’s hearing — a continuation of a May 13 hearing in the case — was whether the child care licenses would cause “irreparable harm” to detained families during the lead up to a full trial, scheduled for September. Then, Crump is set to take up the plaintiffs’ broader claims concerning DFPS’ authority to license the facilities.

Robert Doggett, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and counsel for the plaintiffs, told the court Wednesday that the licensure is a “significant departure” from DFPS’ mission of protecting children.

In late April, DFPS approved a license for Karnes, despite allegations of child sexual abuse at the facility and state inspections that turned up safety deficiencies.

Texas’ attempt to grant residential child care licenses to detention centers began quietly last fall, after DFPS tried to create a new child care licensing category without seeking public input. Grassroots Leadership went to court and won a temporary injunction against the state’s backdoor efforts in November, and officials subsequently called a series of public hearings about the licensures.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued in court on Wednesday that the state’s main motivation is to keep family detention centers in compliance with the 1997 Flores v. Meese agreement, which prohibits detention of children in unlicensed facilities. If the Texas detention centers can’t get licensed by the state, they may run afoul of the agreement.

That puts the future of the Dilley detention center in question. For now, both Karnes and Dilley will remain open and litigation is almost certain to continue.

Expert witnesses for the plaintiffs testified Wednesday that detention puts “trauma piled upon trauma” on immigrant children, causing long-term physiological and emotional damage.

“These children have had their own traumatic histories,” said Dr. Luis Zayas, dean of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work, “and then we place them in detention where they are under considerable fear, threat and deprivation of what most normal kids in the community or in a therapeutic facility would experience.”

Both DFPS officials and representatives for the for-profit companies that run the detention centers said in court that the licenses enhance safety by giving the state some oversight over federal facilities.

Without a license, “these facilities will remain self-regulated, unaccountable to the state and without the same public reporting requirements,” said Todd Disher, attorney with the Texas Attorney General’s office.

Crump wrote in her order that because immigrant detention centers are already required to comply with state standards requiring employee background checks and investigations into complaints, her decision does “not diminish DFPS’ capacity to protect the children in any significant way.” She granted DFPS the authority to take “the same protective actions” at the unlicensed Dilley facility as it might at the licensed Karnes facility.

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

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Published at 10:06 pm CST