Aug. 21 (UPI) — A Texas-based nonprofit organization contracted by the U.S. government to house unaccompanied migrant children failed to meet safety and cleanliness standards at its facilities and improperly released children to sponsors without background checks, according to a government watchdog report.
According to the 61-page report, 17 of the 26 Southwest Key facilities in Arizona, California and Texas were found to have at least one cleaning or safety issue, with at least two facilities failing to prevent children access to maintenance equipment, including lawnmowers, a pressure washer, a weed eater and a gas container, while at another center, children had access to the keys of company vehicles.
The report also said 14 of the facilities had unsecured hazardous materials, such as cleaning supplies, paint and pool chemicals, in easy access to children. Two facilities, it said, had expired over-the-counter medication as staff failed to conduct inspections. And three facilities with gas appliances did not have carbon monoxide detectors.
Meanwhile, the inspector general said Southwest Key did not properly document the care or release of 38 percent of the 22,109 children it put under the supervision of sponsors in fiscal year 2016.
It said in 12 percent of those cases, children were released to sponsors without the required background checks, including having their names checked against sex offender registries.
“Southwest Key failed to ensure compliance with state requirements, and for some of these conditions, Southwest Key staff did not adequately monitor its facilities during the monthly safety check to ensure that the facilities were clean and free from unsafe or harmful conditions,” the report said. “The failure to follow health and safety requirements placed the health and safety of children at risk.”
Southwest Key said it generally agreed with the inspector general’s findings and recommendations and had “outlined corrective actions it had taken” to address the issues, according to the report.
The 2017 investigation of Southwest Key facilities in the three states by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General came in response to the recent rapid increase in the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States and funding provided by the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program for their care.
Southwest Key was selected for review as it is one of the largest service providers for the UAC Program.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the number of children the Office of Refugee Resettlement served was between 7,000 and 8,000 annually from 2005 to 2011, after which the number of children served ballooned to 13,625 in 2012 and 57,496 in 2014. Following a small decrease of 33,726 children in 2015, a then-high of 59,170 children were served by the department in 2016.
The report comes as the Trump administration has been taking criticism not only over its hard-line immigration policies but for its treatment of children who cross over into the United States from Mexico.
On Monday, California filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on behalf of 15 people who were detained at eight facilities for failing to ensure appropriate medical and mental healthcare to its charges while in late July, the American Civil Liberties Union said the government had separated 900 migrant children from their parents despite a court injunction to halt the practice.