The Tornillo "influx shelter" is run by Baptist Children and Family Services at the Marcelino Serna Land Port of Entry in Tornillo, Texas. File Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE
MEXICO CITY, Dec. 18 (UPI) -- Health and safety violations at shelters and foster homes for unaccompanied migrant children run by Baptist Child and Family Services of San Antonio have been identified again -- this time in a report by the Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General.
The HHS watchdog's report, released Dec. 11, focuses on fiscal year 2015, when BCFS served more than 10 percent, or 4,300 children of the 33,726 unaccompanied migrant children who entered the United States. This year, after an immigration crackdown, the annual total number of unaccompanied migrant children in just over 100 federally funded shelters in 17 states has surged to almost 50,000, with BCFS still among the largest shelter operators.
Earlier this summer, the Office of Refugee Resettlement contracted BCFS to run the Tornillo, Texas, "influx shelter," with a current capacity of more than 3,000 children. By year's end, the federal government will have paid BCFS about $430 million for Tornillo, according to Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-El Paso, who has twice toured the facility.
Among the problems detailed in the 2015 report were that BCFS:
* Failed to complete medical exams within the mandated 48 hours
* Failed to post video cameras in all common areas
* Failed to follow regulations regarding background checks for migrant children's sponsors
* Failed to complete required admission assessments
* Failed to document the family reunification process for the Department of Homeland Security and other stakeholders
* Failed to comply with state regulations regarding minimum bedroom space, health and safety standards for shelters and foster homes, and employee background investigations.
BCFS spokeswoman Evy Ramos told UPI via email that after it received the federal auditors' draft report in November, "each item was addressed and we are in concurrence with the recommendations."
Ramos also said that in March BCFS obtained a three-year accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, an international nonprofit accreditor of health and human services. This accreditation, Ramos wrote, "will result in long-term compliance with recommendations outlined in the OIG report."
The Office of Inspector General used statistical sampling followed by examining case files for unaccompanied minors and BCFS employees to build a picture of federal and state health and safety violations at BCFS-run facilities for fiscal year 2015.
For example, in a sample of 190 children, auditors found that its staff did not complete a required medical exam within 48 business hours. "The child arrived on a Wednesday, and the medical exam was not completed until the following Monday," the report found.
BCFS: Largest federally funded operator
The OIG shared its draft report with BCFS in November, more than two years after beginning its audit. Since June 2016, BCFS has continued to land lucrative contracts for unaccompanied migrant children's care.
The watchdog chose 2015 as the year for auditing BCFS because it received the highest amount of funding from ORR in 2015 -- $250 million -- almost a quarter of the budget spent on the whole unaccompanied minors' program.
A previous IG memorandum criticized the "dangerously low" staffing of mental health professionals and the failure to conduct fingerprint background checks on staff employed at Tornillo. BCFS Tornillo is not accredited under CARF.
Surging growth characterizes the numbers of unaccompanied migrant children in the federal government's care since 2012. The watchdog reported that between 2005 and 2012, the federal government's unaccompanied children program served between 7,000 and 8,000 per year. But in 2012, that number almost doubled to 13,625 children and just two years later, in 2014, it served 57,496 children.
The exponential growth of migrant children in federal custody appears to have outstripped the Department of Health and Human Services watchdog's capacity to audit shelter and foster care facilities. An OIG representative said the agency began its 2015 audit of BCFS activities in 2016, but "extended" its review because of workload and staffing issues. "This does not, however, diminish the importance of the audit report, as BCFS HHS is still providing services to unaccompanied children," the representative said.
ORR is an agency of HHS, run through its Administration for Children and Families. Organizations like BCFS receive grants from ORR to run facilities for unaccompanied migrant children -- under stringent federal guidelines. When the child care facilities are not on federal land, state child care licensing regulations also apply.
Among other violations of federal regulations, BCFS failed to document whether its staff had completed an "intake assessment."
The intake assessment "covers biographic, family, legal/migration, medical, substance abuse and mental health history" and must be completed within seven days of the child's admission. Without such documentation, auditors wrote that BCFS would not be able "to properly plan for the children in its care."
Failures in background checks
ORR always has legal custody of the children while its grantees, like BCFS, coordinate the child's release to suitable sponsors in the family reunification process, including conducting appropriate background checks.
"Without documentation in the case file to demonstrate that BCFS HHS conducted background checks," the investigators wrote, "BCFS HHS was potentially releasing children to sponsors who had not been properly vetted, and as a result, the children's health and safety could have been at risk."
Fifty-two percent of the 4,300 children in BCFS care in 2015 were released to a parent or legal guardian. BCFS released the remaining children to other immediate adult relatives or distant relatives and unrelated adults.
The auditors also criticized BCFS for its record keeping when it released 501 children to sponsors in the United States.
BCFS documentation errors meant that "ORR could not be assured that Department of Homeland Security and stakeholders were aware of the location of the child once they were discharged from ORR care," the auditors wrote.
Tesia Williams, director of communications for the HHS IG, said the 501 children with errors in their case files was a "statistical projection." When asked if the auditors were able to trace children whom BCFS placed with sponsors, Williams said that was not included in their methodology.
Auditors also identified discrepancies in the way BCFS reported reunifications to the federal government. BCFS said it reunified 123 more children to sponsors than could actually be documented.
ORR didn't respond to requests for comment.