The only shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Colorado will grow in size significantly later this year.
Devereux, a national behavioral health nonprofit, plans to expand its Westminster shelter for unaccompanied migrant children from eighteen to thirty beds for boys ages fourteen to seventeen, according to sources. And after that, Devereux will add twenty additional beds for girls of the same ages.
The expansion plans come as the federal government is dealing with a rising number of children crossing the border. The Biden administration has been struggling to keep up with the rates of minors crossing into the U.S., with some Customs and Border Protection facilities becoming significantly overcrowded. Most of these children are originally from El Salvador, Honduras or Guatemala, with some also coming from Mexico.
Federal law requires that CBP transfer children in its custody over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement Administration for Children and Families within 72 hours — though in many cases, that's not happening, according to news reports.
Once these children enter the care of HHS, federal employees then work to get the minors reunified with a family member in the United States. Most unaccompanied migrant children at the Devereux facility in Westminster stay there for a few weeks or even months before being reunified with a family member, according to Ashley Harrington, managing attorney of the children's program at the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, which provides free legal services to all kids in HHS custody at the Westminster shelter.
"The shelter that we have in Westminster is the least-restrictive level. It's really run much more like a shelter and a group home, and not like a jail," explains Harrington. "It's quite different than being in ICE or CBP custody."
Both Harrington and Mary Gerlach of the Colorado Department of Human Services confirm that Devereux staff have discussed the nonprofit's intention to grow from eighteen to thirty beds at the Westminster facility. According to Harrington, Devereux staff also mentioned the plan to add beds for teenage girls later this year.
A Devereux spokesperson told Westword that the facility must get permission from the Office of Refugee Resettlement before providing any statements; since then, neither Devereux nor ORR has responded to requests for comment.
Devereux has been licensed by the Colorado Department of Human Services to run the unaccompanied migrant shelter in Westminster since December 2019. The contract to house the children is between Devereux and the federal government.
Devereux also operates the Cleo Wallace Academy boarding school at the Westminster facility, which houses youth involved in the organization's various treatment programs for psychiatric, emotional and behavioral disorders.
Devereux works in a dozen other states besides Colorado. In some of those states, it has been the focus of accusations of staffers endangering the welfare of children; Devereux executive leadership has pushed back against assertions that the nonprofit has systemic issues, saying that incidents of misconduct are isolated and not part of a pattern.
Around the time that Devereux applied to Colorado for a license to run the unaccompanied migrant children shelter, advocates rallied against the opening of a similar facility in Pennsylvania, accusing Devereux of playing a supporting role in a government that was harshly treating people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Contacted by Westword about those reports in December 2019, Leah Yaw, a senior vice president at Devereux, said: "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."
Few concerns have been raised about the Westminster facility by Colorado's very active immigrant advocacy community. Harrington says that she and her colleagues have a "very positive relationship" with Devereux staffers. "They care for these kids a lot, and people are being really well taken care of in their care."
Staffers for Congressman Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat whose district includes Westminster, conducted a virtual tour of the Devereux facility in November 2020, according to Ashley Verville, a spokesperson for Perlmutter's office; she did not respond to questions about the scope of the tour.
The feds are also considering setting up an emergency unaccompanied migrant children shelter at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, according to Congressman Doug Lamborn, a Republican from El Paso County, who refers to that possibility as "truly disturbing." His district includes the base.
"Peterson is critical to our national security and is home to both Space Command and Northern Command —defense entities with can’t-fail missions that occur daily," Lamborn says. "The president is directly responsible for this crisis, and his actions have encouraged illegal aliens to race to our border. President Biden must halt the flow of illegal immigration, restore the Remain in Mexico policy, and get the crisis at the Southern Border under control."
Lamborn's language is "totally wrong and erroneous fear-mongering," Harrington says. "These are children who are fleeing to the U.S. for protection, and characterizing them as anything else is just flat-out wrong."
State officials have been monitoring the possibility that the federal government could begin using Peterson Air Force Base as an emergency shelter for migrant children, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.
"We recognize the need for short-term accommodations for unaccompanied children who have crossed our southern border, many of whom fled violence and are on their way to join family in the U.S.," Gerlach notes. "We continue to work with our federal partners to understand the need and our role in the national response.”
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