Reveal, a website of the Center for Investigative Reporting, published an article
this week saying the federal government Office of Refugee Resettlement is using secret shelters to hold unaccompanied minors, including in Arkansas. The agency responded to the report this afternoon.

The government response was included in a subsequent version of the Reveal article and prompted a change in its original headline reference to “clandestine” facilities to “out of network facilities.”

The article says the practice could be in violation of rules on holding immigrant children. The children have been placed in facilities that serve those with behavioral or mental health issues.

According to the article:

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One of the care providers, Millcreek Behavioral Health in Fordyce, Arkansas, operates as a residential treatment center and is holding at least eight children in the refugee agency’s custody, according to information obtained by Reveal. Inspection reports obtained by Reveal do not suggest any serious state violations; 911 service call records to the facility were requested by Reveal in December, but the local office of emergency management hasn’t decided whether to release the documents.

Millcreek would not comment to Reveal. But the reporters talked to a relative of a child believed held there.

Néstor Dubón, a sponsor for an asylum-seeking cousin who’s being held at Millcreek, hasn’t visited the site but describes it as a better alternative to the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, a shelter whose federal contract came to an end in 2018, where Dubón’s cousin previously was held. Dubón was told that his cousin would be transferred to Arkansas but was unaware that the facility’s use as a shelter wasn’t public. No matter where his cousin is being held, Dubón’s chief concern is his cousin’s release. He said he’s met all the requirements asked of him by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to gain his cousin’s freedom.

“I’ve given my fingerprints three times – three times!” Dubón said. “I’ve obtained and shared birth certificates and powers of attorney from Honduras and for what? He’s still there.”

Dubón’s 16-year-old cousin has been in the agency’s custody since he first entered the United States more than two years ago.

The article notes that Millcreek is a property of Acadia Healthcare, which has had regulatory issues.

The article also details political connections with nonprofits involved and questions about oversight.

In a statement to Reveal, Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, called the arrangement “incredibly disturbing.”

“Imagine being a child in a strange country, hundreds or thousands of miles from where you grew up, surrounded by people who may not speak your language. You would be incredibly vulnerable – which is exactly why ORR is supposed to follow strict regulations governing where these children can be held and what child welfare standards must be met.”

Merkley has introduced a bill that would require shelter operators to grant access to members of Congress.

“ORR needs to provide answers immediately about where they are holding asylum-seeking children, and what, if any, child welfare regulations those facilities are meeting,” he said.

The lack of disclosure of facilities where unaccompanied minors are held leaves a vacuum of public oversight. It’s unclear how the refugee agency regulates and inspects these facilities. For its publicly listed shelters, the agency sets a minimum staff-to-children ratio and training requirements and conducts announced and unannounced inspections. One possibility is that shelter providers are subcontracting the care of certain children to another care provider.

UPDATE:  Evelyn Stauffer, spokesperson for the HHS Administration for Children and Families issued this statement to the Arkansas Blog Wednesday afternoon:

The Office of Refugee Settlement (ORR) takes the safety and security of every minor referred to our care with the utmost seriousness. ORR policies for placing children and youth in its custody into care provider facilities are based on legal requirements as well as child welfare best practices in order to provide a safe environment and place the child in the least restrictive setting appropriate for the child’s needs. ORR does not have “clandestine” facilities. All permanent ORR unaccompanied alien children (UAC) facilities are appropriately state licensed and monitored, at a minimum, on a monthly basis by ORR. Every minor is assigned a Case Manager who is in close contact with the child and their family regarding the placement. UAC attorneys are also aware of their placement.

Specifically, at times facilities providing highly specialized care are used based on UAC needs. These facilities can be out of the ORR care network. It is long standing practice for ORR to provide specialized care out of our network of shelters. Currently, ORR has approximately 15-20 UAC in out of network placements. While UAC are in these out of network placements, they are assigned to ORR grantee programs who provide ongoing case management. ORR is committed to ensuring that all UAC, including those in out of network placements, have access to proper care and services.

Care providers must comply with all applicable State child welfare laws and regulations and all State and local building, fire, health and safety codes. Care providers must deliver services in a manner that is sensitive to the age, culture, native language, and needs of each unaccompanied alien child. Care providers must develop an individual service plan for the care of each child.

Our monitoring ensures adherence to strict ORR standards and allows us to swiftly address any alleged violations of our policy. This includes initiating immediate employee disciplinary action, termination, and reporting to law enforcement agencies and all relevant licensing bodies.

Additionally, care providers are also required to maintain records of case files and make regular reports to ORR. Care providers must have accountability systems in place which preserve the confidentiality of client information and protect the records from unauthorized use or disclosure.