Last week the Inspector General for HHS released a new inspection report to Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson that criticized conditions and practices at a Texas facility for unaccompanied children.

The IG is in the process of inspecting 45 facilities. These inspections are in person and include records and documents check of the facilities. The facility in Tornillo, Texas, and a grantee of the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) is one of the first reports.

The IG said that the Tornillo facility is not conducting required Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fingerprint background checks for staff working at Tornillo. In addition they are not conducting required child abuse and neglect registry checks because that requirement has been waived by the ORR. Instead they are using background checks conducted by a private contractor that has access to less comprehensive data than what the FBI provides.

According to the IG this increases the risk that an individual with a criminal history could have direct access to children in the ORR facilities. The inspection also found that Tornillo does not employ a sufficient number of staff clinicians to provide adequate mental health care.

Tornillo is located at the Customs and Border Protection’s Texas Land Port of Entry (LPOE). It was opened in June of this year for a one-month period but its life has been extended. It is not licensed to operate by Texas and not subject to state and local licensing standards because it is on Federal property and because of its temporary and emergency nature. To provide for the basic needs of unaccompanied minors, Tornillo uses soft-sided structures and portable sanitation, restroom, and laundry facilities.

The IG inspection was highly critical of the staffing requirements not being met especially in regard to clinicians. The IG said:

“It is unclear how clinician staff at Tornillo could properly assess and respond to the UAC’s mental health needs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, given the current and budgeted staffing ratios, particularly for a population believed to have experienced significant trauma…

We are concerned that upward trends in average length of stay could indicate that Tornillo is or will be functioning more like a shelter care facility, thereby moving away from its initial design as an emergency short-term-care facility. As such, it is imperative that ORR take steps to ensure that Tornillo adheres to comparable program requirements to keep UAC safe and provide access to the mental health care they may need.”

The Inspector General has asked for a response by the Department within 30 days.

About the Author:

John Sciamanna is CWLA's Vice President of Public Policy.

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