A 15 year-old boy held at a center for migrant children which seems a lot like jail apparently just walked out, and the nonprofit accountable for his well-being won’t answer a question about exactly how many times this has happened.
The New York Times reports that the teenager walked out of the Casa Padre holding center in Brownsville, TX around 3 p.m. on Saturday, after staff members tried to convince him to stay. After the teenager—who has not been identified—left, spokesman Jeff Eller said that Southwest Key Programs, which operates the facility, called the Brownsville police.
“It’s a conversation, a conversation that we’re here to help you, we’re here to help you get back with your family,” Eller told the Times. “We can’t help you if you decide to leave.”
Even more disturbing is that this has apparently happened before. Emphasis mine:
A spokesman for Southwest Key, Jeff Eller, said on Sunday it could not legally require children to stay on the premises if they sought to leave, and that “from time to time” children had left several of its 27 shelters for immigrant children.
“We are not a detention center,” Mr. Eller said in a statement. “We talk to them and try to get them to stay. If they leave the property, we call law enforcement.”
Federal officials echoed that position, saying they could not stop a child who attempted to leave. The officials did not respond to a question about how many children had walked away from migrant centers nationwide.
Mr. Eller said that less than 1 percent of all of the children who have come through Southwest Key’s centers have left, though he declined to provide specific numbers.
According to NPR, Southwest Key houses over 5,100 migrant children in three shelters in California, Arizona, and Texas, including the Casa Padre facility, a converted Walmart which is now the largest facility of its kind in the country. This is a service for which it’s receiving $458 million from the federal government this year; if anywhere near 1 percent of those kids have left, that means dozens of kids have just walked out of these facilities. “If children are running away, that raises questions about the care that’s being provided,” Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission told the Times.
While Southwest Key Programs maintains that Casa Padre isn’t a detention center, conditions there seem very similar to those found at one!
In addition, a report published last week by Reveal and the Texas Tribune found that Southwest Key Programs was one of thirteen organizations who’ve faced “serious allegations or citations” who’ve been paid a total of $1.5 billion in federal dollars to house immigrant children in the last five years:
In October, an employee appeared drunk when he showed up to work at a facility operated by Southwest Key Programs in San Benito, Texas. A drug test later found he was over the legal alcohol limit to drive. That was among more 246 violations state inspectors found at Southwest Key’s facilities.
According to the Times, the missing boy had come to the border alone. If he’s found, federal officials said, he’ll be referred again by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“If the facility was such a great idea, why are they trying to get out?” Brownsville mayor Tony Martinez told the Times on Sunday. “Most of the people that escape, they escape from jails. They escape from prisons, because it’s not a fun place to be at. I can just imagine what might be going through that young man’s head, at 15 years old: ‘What am I doing here?’”