The Shiloh Treatment Center near Manvel, Texas, is among shelters across the United States paid by the federal government to house and supervise migrant children. Credit: Pu Ying Huang/The Texas Tribune

Seven months ago, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting asked to see the agreements between the federal government and the companies it pays to house immigrant children. It took three months before we got a confirmation that our Freedom of Information Act request had been received, and four months after that, the government still hasn’t produced these records.

So on Monday, we sued to see them. We asked a federal court to enforce the open records laws that should allow the public to see the details of these agreements. You can read the complaint here.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services posts some of that information in the descriptions of its grants through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But we wanted to read the fine print in the agreements it signed with each shelter operator – the money, the terms and, crucially, what the consequences are when children are harmed at a shelter.

Given what we now know about the history of abuse and neglect at many of these shelters and the government’s recent practice of placing kids in them after taking them from their parents, it’s more important than ever to know what standards of care the shelters have agreed to meet.

But back in November, we wanted these answers because of two other big changes in the way the government treats migrant kids.

The first was a side effect of the Trump administration’s campaign against the gang MS-13. Kids in New York were being identified as gang members by local police, arrested by immigration authorities and sent to the resettlement agency. The agency is assigned to house minors who cross the border unaccompanied.

These teenagers in New York had crossed the border alone but were living with their families when they were arrested and sent, alone, to the resettlement agency’s juvenile detention facilities with no release date.

The government wasn’t resorting to housing kids in tent cities at the time, but even this new policy was straining its resources. In August, the resettlement agency awarded an emergency contract worth nearly $4 million to house minors in Virginia, writing that the agency was “at capacity for secure beds.”

The second change was driven by the agency’s new director, Scott Lloyd, who made an official policy of preventing pregnant children in his custody from getting abortions. Abortion access in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody already had been an issue at some shelters run by religious groups, but last year, Lloyd prescribed anti-abortion counseling across the entire shelter network.

Some of these changes were happening publicly. The agency changed its policy manual last year to require putting alleged gang members in its most secure settings. Others, such as referring girls to anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers, were handed down as email edicts directly from Lloyd.

By November, we knew the agency was holding kids who weren’t truly “unaccompanied,” and we knew the agency’s standards for caring for kids were changing fast.

Hoping to learn more, we filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the formal agreements that spell out the expectations for shelter operators.

We also requested statistics on how many kids in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement were referred by the U.S. Border Patrol, and how many, such as the teenagers in New York, were sent by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This would help us understand how many kids had been separated from their parents inside the country, long after they crossed the border.

No matter how the Trump administration decides to treat families caught crossing the border, the resettlement agency will continue housing thousands of kids, some of whom have parents waiting to see them in the United States. We think the public ought to know what the government expects for the children in its care.

Have a tip about conditions in these shelters you want our team to check out? Send an email to border@revealnews.org.

Patrick Michels can be reached at pmichels@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @PatrickMichels.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focuses on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq. Michels is based in Austin, Texas.