Texas Grants Childcare License to South Texas Immigration Lockup

The Texas Department of Family Protective Services has granted a childcare license to a south Texas immigration detention center for asylum-seeking mothers and children, a facility that experts say is detrimental to healthy child development.

The license, which was issued Friday, showed up in DFPS’s online database of licensed childcare facilities on Monday. Despite intense media attention to the issue, the agency (which has been fighting a blistering federal court order to fix physical, psychological and sexual abuse in the state foster care system) didn’t publicly announce its decision to license the Karnes County Residential Center, which is operated by the Geo Group, a for-profit prison company that’s grown fat off the rise of immigrant detention in the United States in recent years.

If it were up to DFPS, the agency likely would have done this months ago. Last year a federal court judge in California condemned the Obama Administration’s practice of detaining immigrant children, ruling that it violated a longstanding legal settlement that’s supposed to bar the feds from ever again holding immigrant kids in a prison-like setting. Among other problems, California federal court Judge Dolly Gee noted in her ruling that the facilities weren’t even licensed to care for children. As her October 2015 deadline to reform how the feds process and house immigrant children approached, Texas officials did something unexpected: They called for an “emergency” rule change to license the facilities as childcare centers, despite their previous position that the detention centers weren’t the state’s problem. By calling it an emergency, officials attempted to fast-track the licensing process and avoid a public comment period. (Activists suspect the feds pressured DFPS to license the centers; neither the feds nor DFPS officials will talk about their discussions leading up to the state’s decision to license the immigration lockups.)

A state district court judge in Travis County ultimately slowed things down, ruling the situation did not constitute an “emergency,” and forced the state to hold a public comment period over whether to license private-prison-run immigrant detention centers as childcare facilities. The plan was condemned by attorneys representing asylum-seeking children at Karnes and the other south Texas detention center that has applied for a DFPS license, attorneys who say that lax medical care has led to or exacerbated serious health problems for children at the facilities. Social workers who have visited the centers told officials that children there were losing weight, shedding hair, and exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression. Luis Zayas, dean of the school of social work at the University of Texas, has told us that by keeping children in the detention centers, “we’re truncating their possibility of living as normal of a life as they could.”

While critics say DFPS’s decision to license the lockups only helps the feds continue the controversial practice of so-called “family detention,” the agency insists bringing the centers under its regulatory umbrella will better protect kids detained at the facilities. Still, critics point to DFPS’s epic, years-long failings in the state foster care system as evidence that state regulation might not mean much. In its response to critics earlier this year, the agency stated, “While DFPS is sympathetic to the concerns raised, the agency has no role in whether a person is placed or detained in one of the [facilities]."

According to DFPS’s online database, a state inspection at Karnes on March 29 revealed six deficiencies ranging in risk level from “medium” to “high.” Among other problems noted in that report, investigators found that medical records didn’t clearly record some children’s allergies or chronic medical conditions. A DFPS spokesman told the Texas Observer yesterday that the state conducted a follow-up inspection to make sure problems were fixed before granting Karnes a provisional six-month childcare license. The state says it will grant the facility a permanent license if it passes three unannounced inspections in the next six months.

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