Youngest migrants held in 'tender age' shelters
The Trump administration has set up at least three "tender age" shelters where it can lock up babies and other young children who have been forcibly separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, The Associated Press has learned.
Doctors and lawyers who have visited the shelters in South Texas' Rio Grande Valley said the facilities were fine, clean and safe, but the children - who have no idea where their parents are - were hysterical, crying and acting out . Many of them are under age 5, and some are so young they've not yet learned to talk.
The government also plans to open a fourth shelter to house hundreds of young migrant children in Houston, where city leaders denounced the move Tuesday.
Since the White House announced its zero tolerance policy in early May, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in an influx of young children requiring government care.
The government has already faced withering critiques over images of some of the children in cages inside U.S. Border Patrol processing stations. It faced renewed criticism for setting up new places to hold these toddlers, decades after orphanages were phased out over concerns about the lasting trauma to children.
"The thought that they are going to be putting such little kids in an institutional setting? I mean it is hard for me to even wrap my mind around it," said Kay Bellor, vice president for programs at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which provides foster care and other child welfare services to migrant children. "Toddlers are being detained."
By law, child migrants traveling alone must be sent to facilities run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services within three days of being detained. The agency then is responsible for placing the children in shelters or foster homes until they are united with a relative or sponsor in the community as they await immigration court hearings.
But U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' announcement last month that the government would criminally prosecute everyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border illegally has led to the breakup of migrant families and sent a new group of hundreds of young children into the government's care.
The United Nations, some Democratic and Republican lawmakers and religious groups have sharply criticized the policy, calling it inhumane.
Not so, said Steven Wagner, an official with the Department of Health and Human Services.
"We have specialized facilities that are devoted to providing care to children with special needs and tender age children as we define as under 13 would fall into that category," he said. "They're not government facilities per se, and they have very well-trained clinicians, and those facilities meet state licensing standards for child welfare agencies, and they're staffed by people who know how to deal with the needs - particularly of the younger children."
Until now, however, it's been unknown where they are.
"In general we do not identify the locations of permanent unaccompanied alien children program facilities," said agency spokesman Kenneth Wolfe.
The three centers - in Combes, Raymondville and Brownsville - have been rapidly repurposed to serve needs of children, including some under 5. A fourth, planned for Houston, would house up to 240 children in a warehouse previously used for people displaced by Hurricane Harvey, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Turner said he met with officials from Austin-based Southwest Key Programs, the contractor that operates some of the child shelters, to ask them to reconsider their plans. A spokeswoman for Southwest Key didn't immediately reply to an email seeking comment.
"And so there comes a point in time we draw a line, and for me, the line is with these children," Turner said during a news conference Tuesday.
On a practical level, the zero tolerance policy has overwhelmed the federal agency charged with caring for the new influx of children who tend to be much younger than teens who typically have been traveling to the U.S. alone. Some recent detainees are infants, taken from their mothers.
"The shelters aren't the problem, it's taking kids from their parents that's the problem," said Dr. Marsha Griffin, a South Texas pediatrician who has visited many.
Other migrant children have been sent elsewhere. The largest agency handling young migrant children in the U.S. is Bethany Christian Services, whose 99 available beds in Michigan and Maryland are filled.
The group's chief executive officer, Chris Palusky, said the youngest child separated from parents at the border is 8 months old. The average age of children in the organization's care dropped from 14 to 7 years old in recent weeks, after the zero tolerance policy was adopted, Palusky said.