Nonprofit Now Licensed to Run Migrant Children Shelter in Westminster

The state has approved Pennsylvania-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health's license to run the shelter.
The state has approved Pennsylvania-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health's license to run the shelter. corinafotografia/Getty
A behavioral health nonprofit is now licensed to run a shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Westminster, the first of its kind to open in Colorado.

On December 5, the Colorado Department of Human Services approved Pennsylvania-based Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health's license to run the shelter. Devereux operates the Cleo Wallace Academy boarding school at its facility in Westminster, which houses youth involved in the organization's various treatment programs for psychiatric, emotional and behavioral disorders.

While the migrant shelter requires licensing from the state before being able to operate, the contract for the facility is between Devereux and the federal government. In August, the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement awarded a grant to Devereux to develop shelters in various locations across the country.

The Westminster shelter is authorized to host up to 14 children at any given time. They must be male and range in age from fourteen to seventeen years old, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

"We look forward to welcoming the residential shelter proposed by the Devereux Foundation into HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) network of care providers once the shelter has met state residential care licensing and ORR standards," the Office of Refugee Resettlement previously wrote to Westword in a statement. "We treat the children in our care with dignity and respect, and deliver services to them in a compassionate and organized manner while we work expeditiously to unify each one with their parent, family member or other suitable sponsor."

U.S. Border Patrol usually releases unaccompanied minors that it apprehends at the border to Health and Human Services within 72 hours. These children are then sent to shelters, like Devereux's, while Health and Human Services searches for a relative or sponsor. Unaccompanied migrant children without an identifiable family member or sponsor can remain in federal custody until they turn eighteen.

A statement from a Devereux executive to another publication lays out other locations of possible shelters. "The $14 million first-year contract covers start-up costs and beds for 180 children in six states: Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Texas, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Colorado. The [Department of Health and Human Services] will not release the funds until Devereux has successfully performed the services," Leah Yaw, a senior vice president at Devereux, told Main Line.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement says it runs a "network of approximately 170 facilities/programs in 23 states, and has a proven track record of accountability and transparency for program operations, as well as being a good neighbor in the communities where facilities are located." But some of these shelters have drawn criticism because of poor conditions. After civil-rights groups lodged complaints, Health and Human Services removed all unaccompanied migrant children from a facility in Homestead, Florida. Devereux's plans to open a shelter in Chester County, Pennsylvania, have been met with opposition from community members.

In November, the Philadelphia Inquirer published side-by-side opinion pieces by a critic of these types of shelters and by Yaw.

"As the White House continues to criminalize migrants, we have seen these numbers soar, and companies like Devereux see this as an opportunity to rake in profits off of the separation of families," wrote Erika Almirón, a Philadelphia-based immigrant-rights activist.

Yaw countered by arguing that Devereux's intentions weren't motivated by money and defending the organization's decision to operate these facilities. "Standing on the sidelines while immigration policy is debated would certainly be easier than fighting to help these children in real time, but that would mean abandoning them to detention camps or the streets. Devereux won’t do that," she wrote.

In a phone interview with Westword today, December 6, Yaw expanded on her company's philosophy. "The reason Devereux is doing this work is because regardless of the way people may feel or may not feel about immigration policy, it is the current policy. And under that current policy, children can be, have been, are being detained by the Department of Homeland Security. Detention environments are neither designed for, nor are they appropriate for children. Children should be in the care of their families, and for the short time that it takes to reunite them with their families, they should be in the care of trained behavioral health, mental health, medical,and educational professionals who are working in the best interest of those children."

There have also been allegations of Devereux staffers around the U.S. endangering the welfare of children and, in some cases, assaulting them. In 2003, a thirteen-year-old girl named Orlena Parker died after being restrained by six staff members at Devereux's now-closed Colorado Springs campus. Criminal charges weren't filed, and El Paso County investigators found no evidence of child abuse. The Colorado Department of Human Services did, however, mandate that Devereux fix its restraint policy and better train its staff, according to the Colorado Springs Independent.

"A few advocacy organizations have pointed to individual incidents across our national network to suggest they represent systemic problems," Yaw wrote in her op-ed. "That suggestion is categorically untrue. In just the last 20 years, Devereux has employed more than 58,000 dedicated staff who have provided extraordinary, and at times, lifesaving, care to hundreds of thousands of children and adults. One incident in care is one too many, and no one believes that more strongly, or works harder to improve every day, than the staff at Devereux."

"It is our goal to never have one single incident in care occur," Yaw told Westword. That is a very high bench to set. [But] it is unfair for anyone to call out any one incident or any two or three incidents and say that that represents Devereux."

According to the federal government, there was a 60 percent increase in apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2019 up to August as compared to numbers from the same period last year; the vast majority of them came from Central America. At any given moment, there are between 10,000 and 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the federal government's custody.

Update: We've updated the amount of children the shelter can hold.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a former staff writer at Westword, where he covered a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports; he now lives in upstate New York.

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