Nonprofit Wants to Open Child Migrant Shelter in Westminster

A behavioral health nonprofit is seeking to house unaccompanied undocumented children at a facility it owns in Westminster. The shelter would become the first in Colorado to house such children who are in the federal government's custody.

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, operates the Cleo Wallace Academy boarding school at its facility in Westminster, housing youth involved in its various treatment programs for psychiatric, emotional and behavioral disorders. But it is now seeking an additional designation from the state to qualify as a "shelter care" facility, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services, which grants such licenses. According to Mark Techmeyer, a spokesperson with the department, the shelter could house no more than sixteen children at a time. The federal government says the children will all be male and will range in age from 14 to 17 years old.

Devereux filed the application in early August, and Techmeyer says that such licensing requests usually take 60 to 120 days to be processed.

U.S. Border Patrol typically releases any unaccompanied minors it apprehends at the border to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours. Children are then sent to shelters around the U.S. while Health and Human Services searches for a relative or sponsor. Undocumented children without an identifiable sponsor or family member can remain in government custody until they turn eighteen.

Westminster Mayor Herb Atchison says he isn't aware of the plans to open the shelter because the City of Westminster isn't involved in the licensing process.

"This is the first I've heard of it. They have not contacted me," Atchison says. "I can't give you an opinion because I don't know the details."

Staffers at Devereux facilities around the U.S. have been accused of endangering the welfare of children and of assault. In 2003, a thirteen-year-old girl named Orlena Parker died after being restrained by a half dozen staff members at Devereux's now-defunct Colorado Springs campus. No criminal charges were filed, and El Paso County investigators didn't find evidence of child abuse. The state Department of Human Services did, however, require Devereux to fix its restraint policy and better train its staff, according to the Colorado Springs Independent.

Whereas licensing falls to the state, Devereux is contracting with the federal government's Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement to house unaccompanied migrant children, which defines shelter care as "a shelter is a residential care provider facility in which all of the programmatic components are administered on-site, in the least restrictive environment," including less restrictive than Homeland Security facilities for undocumented migrants.

"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 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."

The Office of Refugee Resettlement noted that it operates 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." However, some shelters for unaccompanied migrant children have drawn criticism due to poor conditions. Following complaints from civil rights groups, Health and Human Services removed all unaccompanied migrant children from a large facility in Homestead, Florida.

Devereux is currently recruiting staff to work at its facility in Colorado. "In response to the humanitarian crisis at America’s ports of entry, Devereux will be providing short-term shelter care services for Unaccompanied Children (UACs) who have come to the United States without their legal guardian," the company stated in a job advertisement seeking bilingual staff at its Westminster facility.

Devereux declined to comment for this article. However, news outlets in Pennsylvania, where the opening of one such facility has drawn opposition from neighbors, have reported on the contract Devereux has with the government to care for unaccompanied children in its facilities across the country.

"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 the news outlet Main Line.

The contract between the government and Devereux was finalized in August. According to a story in March in the news outlet Reveal, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has been housing "at least five minors" at one of Devereux's facilities in Florida under the federal agency's provision for placing kids in "out of network" facilities in "instances when ORR determines there is no care provider available within the network to provide specialized services needed for special needs cases," according to the ORR website.

According to the federal government, there were 60 percent more apprehensions of unaccompanied migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border during fiscal year 2019 up to August as compared to the same period last year, and the vast majority came from Central America. At any given time, there are between 10,000 and 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children in the federal government's care.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers 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.