Substantial risks to children at Texas detention facility

Written by: Sarah Barnes
Date Posted: November 30, 2018

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently inspected a detention facility for migrant children in Texas and identified substantial risks for children being held there. According to a memorandum issued by HHS, the facility has not been conducting FBI fingerprint background checks on the staff working at the facility, and the number of mental health providers at the facility is dangerously low.

The facility opened this summer as a temporary shelter for migrant children, and currently holds more than 2,000 children between the ages of 13 and 17. Children are being held in the facility for an average of 27 days, according to HHS. Longer-term care facilities for children are required to have more mental health providers on staff than facilities that provide temporary or emergency shelter for children.

migrant teens held inside the Tornillo detention camp

Photo of migrant teens held inside the Tornillo detention camp. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre via AP.

Given that children are being held for 27 days on average at the facility in Texas, HHS found that the number of mental health providers at the facility is dangerously low. The staffing ratio for mental health providers at the facility is currently one provider for every 55 children, while requirements for mental health provider staffing ratios at longer-term facilities is one provider for every 12 children. Alarmingly, the Texas facility’s budget for the remainder of 2018 allows for a staffing ratio of one mental health provider for up to 100 children.

FBI fingerprint background checks provide a critical safeguard for unaccompanied children held in detention facilities because errors may occur when other types of background checks are performed. Facility staff stated that they were conducting background checks on  newly hired staff using a private vendor, which could identify certain issues, but are less extensive than fingerprint background checks.

Every child who comes into the custody of our government should be guaranteed the protection and services necessary to ensure the child’s safety, well-being, and development, and to mitigate the stress and trauma experienced by children being held in detention. Adequate background checks and access to sufficient mental health supports are two critical ways to address the safety and well-being of migrant children when they are being held in detention.

Sarah Barnes

About Sarah Barnes

Sarah serves as the Policy Analyst for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Prior to joining the Children’s Campaign in September 2014, Sarah taught middle school English and worked as an Interventionist at Pioneer Charter School in Denver. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member. Prior to teaching, Sarah worked as an attorney in Denver in the areas of venture capital, mergers and acquisitions, general corporate and business law, and commercial transactions. Sarah earned a BA in English from Midland University and a J.D. from the University of Michigan.