This story is a collaboration with WRAL News.
The U.S. government plans to send immigrant children to shelters run by a group home recently shut down by North Carolina, a building contractor with no experience in residential care and a Texas children’s shelter with a track record of state violations, a Reveal and WRAL News investigation has found.
New Horizon Group Home had its license revoked by North Carolina in July 2018, five months after the facility admitted its first resident. Yet in April, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency that oversees the care of unaccompanied children, awarded New Horizon a $4 million grant.
When it opened, New Horizon cared for children ages 9 to 16. But state regulators soon found that conditions at the group home “present an imminent danger to the health, safety and welfare of the clients and that emergency action is required.” The state cited New Horizon for a series of violations, including underqualified staff, inadequate staffing levels and use of an unapproved “timeout” room as punishment. One child told inspectors that an employee slapped and choked him. A 9-year-old boy said he found a blade inside the home and cut himself.
Under state law, the firm cannot receive any new license from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services until 2023. New Horizon is challenging the state’s decision, saying the state audit was inaccurate. It also has applied for a new license. However, if the decision is upheld, New Horizon will have received some federal grant money despite being prohibited from housing children for the next four years.
Before it was closed by the state, New Horizon operated a nine-bed facility. Now, under the new federal grant, the group home has agreed to provide up to 72 beds for migrant children.
As the Office of Refugee Resettlement rapidly expands its shelter network to accommodate the roughly 10,000 unaccompanied children in its care, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and WRAL News found that it’s adding new providers with little experience and troubling track records.
“They’re supposed to be these child welfare experts,” said Joann Bautista, policy associate at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “You’d think they should know that when they give a grant to a provider who has no idea how to take care of children, that that actually makes no sense.”
The U.S. government has a well-documented record of keeping children in dangerous conditions. Earlier this summer, lawyers and pediatricians who visited several Border Patrol facilities observed sick children with no regular access to showers or medical care. Last year, a Reveal investigation found that the refugee agency regularly sent migrant children to youth shelters accused of serious lapses in care, including neglect, abuse and forced drugging.
New Horizon is among a dozen new organizations that have been awarded grants in 2019 as the agency expands its current network of 168 shelters and other programs.
In this latest expansion, some first-time grant winners are licensed but have histories of abuse and children dying in their care. State inspectors received reports that staff at one group home in South Texas used a chokehold on a child and pushed another child into a wall. The refugee agency also awarded a grant to a California foster care agency that in 2014 placed a young girl in a home where she died a month later after falling in a bedroom, where she was playing unsupervised.
Two other grants went to a staffing firm and building contractor in Georgia, the Baptiste Group. Reveal could not find any evidence that the firm has experience in caring for children or adults.
Kevin Baptiste, the firm’s owner, did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the last week.
Neither Baptiste nor New Horizon is licensed to provide residential child care. The government is required to place unaccompanied children in state-regulated shelters and requires care providers to be appropriately licensed within 75 days of an award. For both of the firms, that deadline already has passed. New Horizon applied for a residential child care license July 17 with the same agency that revoked its previous license.
Even though neither provider is licensed, both already have received grant money.
Knicole Emanuel, a lawyer representing New Horizon CEO Barbara Brockington, said the audit that led to the facility’s closure was inaccurate.
“She has a very good company that does very good services for people who need it,” Emanuel said.
In the last three months, the refugee agency has awarded Baptiste $13.3 million to run two shelters. Federal spending records suggest one would be in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Job ads posted by the company indicate the other would be in Memphis, Tennessee. Officials in both states told Reveal that the company hasn’t applied for a license.
Nor does it appear to have a facility to house children. Last week, Chalkbeat reported that the Baptiste Group inquired on May 24 about leasing a vacant Memphis charter school, but it withdrew its application after a reporter asked the company for details about its plans.
When asked why the Baptiste Group was awarded a grant despite its lack of child care experience, the federal Administration for Children and Families said Baptiste “has worked closely” with shelters in Florida and New Mexico, according to its grant application.
The company did recruit workers for two large migrant children’s shelters previously. The firm also recently won $1.6 million from Houston to rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Bob Carey, who was director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement from 2015 to 2016, told Reveal that he couldn’t recall an instance in which a grant was awarded to a new organization without its own facility or a history of providing residential care.
“To the best of my knowledge,” he said, new grantees “would have been organizations that had experience or, for the most part, were licensed or were in the process of obtaining a license.”
State oversight ensures that children receive “a minimum threshold of protection,” such as schooling and being cared for by trained staff, said Neha Desai, director of immigration for the National Center for Youth Law.
“While there is no way to ensure that a contractor will provide quality care, contracting with facilities that have a history of providing residential care in compliance with state standards is a critical step towards maximizing the possibility that children will be safe,” she said.
The new grants were awarded as the government shifts away from housing children in what it calls “temporary influx shelters,” places such as the tent city that sprang up in the desert near Tornillo, Texas, last year. The refugee agency opens these locations when smaller shelters are overwhelmed by an increase in youth at the border or a slowdown in releasing children to their guardians.
Unlike the regular shelters that would be run by New Horizon and Baptiste, influx facilities are exempt from state licensing requirements and can house thousands of children at a time.
Advocates for migrant children have criticized the government for relying on these large new facilities. Last year, many children spent months in the Tornillo tent city, some of whom were sent to immigration court without legal representation. Earlier this month, Reveal reported that children held in Carrizo Springs, Texas, were not getting access to legal services as required by federal law.
Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families, told members of Congress last week that the agency plans to phase out influx shelters by 2020 because it is expanding its network of smaller group homes.
In recent weeks, the population of children at a South Florida temporary shelter has dropped to below 1,000. The federal Department of Health and Human Services also announced this week that it had transferred or released the last of the children held in Carrizo Springs.
Leah Chavla, policy adviser for the Women’s Refugee Commission, said immigrant children ideally should be placed in small, licensed group homes instead of large temporary shelters where children are less likely to get individualized care.
“We want them to expand the permanent bed capacity so that children don’t have to be in these massive facilities with hundreds or thousands of other children,” she said.
But some of the new shelter providers also have histories of serious violations.
The Sunny Glen Children’s Home in San Benito, Texas, was awarded a $31 million grant July 18. But Texas officials have cited Sunny Glen for 94 violations in the last three years, according to state records reviewed by Reveal.
In July 2016, a staff member was accused of placing a child in a chokehold. “The staff member did not release the child after being instructed by staff members to do so,” records state.
One investigation found that a staff member pushed a child against a wall. Another caregiver allowed children previously involved in sexually inappropriate behavior to change in a restroom together.
The home’s director, Chase Palmer, did not respond to Reveal’s questions and referred a reporter to the federal refugee agency.
Another new provider is Alba Care Services near Calexico on the California-Mexico border. A 2015 investigation by The Desert Sun in Palm Springs found that a 23-month-old girl died after Alba placed her in a home where she fell while playing unsupervised. California investigators have substantiated 20 complaints in the agency’s homes since 2014. Alba officials could not be reached for comment.
Reporter Aura Bogado contributed to this story. It was edited by Andrew Donohue and Matt Thompson and copy edited by Nikki Frick.