PHOENIX — Decades after the U.S. stopped institutionalizing kids because large and crowded orphanages were causing lasting trauma, it is happening again. The federal government has placed most of the 14,300 migrant children in its care in detention centers and residential facilities packed with hundreds, or thousands, of kids.
As the year draws to a close, some 5,400 detained migrant children in the U.S. are sleeping in shelters with more than 1,000 other children. Some 9,800 are in facilities with 100-plus total kids, according to confidential government data obtained and cross-checked by The Associated Press. Three months after President Donald Trump took office, the same federal program had 2,720 migrant youth in its care - most in shelters with a few dozen kids or in foster programs.
Until now, public information has been limited about the number of youths held at each facility overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The AP obtained data showing the number of children in individual detention centers, shelters and foster care programs for nearly every week over the past 20 months, revealing in detail the expanse of a program at the center of the Trump administration's immigration crackdown.
It's been taking at least twice as long as it did in January 2016, on average two months now, for youth to get out of ORR custody, in part because the administration added more restrictive screening measures for parents and relatives who would take them in. That changed Tuesday when officials ended a policy requiring every adult in households where migrant children will live to provide the government with fingerprints.
All still must submit to background checks, and parents themselves still need to be fingerprinted. Nonetheless, officials said they could now process some children more rapidly, and hoped to shorten shelter stays that had dragged on so long kids sometimes wondered if their parents had abandoned them for good.
"It's a pain we will never get through," said Cecilio Ramirez Castaneda, a Salvadoran who was separated from his 12-year-old son, Omar, when they were apprehended in June under the administration's "zero tolerance" policy, which led to nearly 3,000 children being separated from their families. Omar feared his father had given up on him during his five months in a Texas shelter.
Ramirez was reunited with Omar last month only to learn that his son had been hospitalized for depression and medicated for unclear reasons, and suffered a broken arm, while in government custody. "It's a system that causes irreparable damage," Ramirez said.
Experts say the anxiety and distrust children suffer while institutionalized can cause long-lasting mental and physical health problems. It's worse for younger children, those who stay more than a few days and those who are in larger facilities with less personal care.
"This is a moral disaster," said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who heads Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. "We are inflicting punishments on innocent children that will have lifelong consequences."
Administration officials say increased need has driven them to expand the number of beds available for migrant children from 6,500 last fall to 16,000 today. Sheltering children in large facilities, while not preferable, is a better alternative than holding them for long periods at Border Patrol stations, said Mark Weber, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR.
"There are a large number of children and it's a difficult situation, and we are just working hard to make sure they are taken care of and placed responsibly," Weber said.
Weber confirmed a number of the shelter populations from the data the AP obtained. To further verify the data, reporters contacted more than a dozen programs that contract with ORR. Reporters also cross-referenced previously collected population numbers.
The kids in these programs range in age from toddlers to 17. The vast majority crossed the border without their parents, but some were separated from their families at the border earlier this year.
The care they receive varies greatly in the opaque network, which has encompassed 150 different facilities over the last 20 months in 17 states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington state. Some children live with foster families and are treated to Broadway shows, while others sleep in canvas tents in the Texas desert.
Through dozens of interviews and data analysis, AP found:
- As of Dec. 17, some 9,800 children were in facilities housing more than 100 kids; 5,405 of those were in three facilities with more than 1,000 youths in Texas and Florida.
- Texas had the most growth in the number of kids under ORR custody - about 8,700, up from 1,368 in April 2017. New York had the second-highest number of children - about 1,650, up from 210 in April 2017.
Dozens of the care providers have been sued or disciplined before for mistreating kids. Now new litigation is piling up as attorneys fight to get migrant children released. This December, many will be enduring their first holidays without family.
Manuel Marcelino Tzah, a Guatemalan father whose 12-year-old daughter, Manuela, was taken from him and held in a Houston facility for nearly two months, said his family is still processing the pain of separation.
"Sometimes she remembers it and is hit with the sadness of it," said Marcelino, whose immigration case is pending in a New York court near his new home in Brooklyn. "I tell her what happened, happened, and now we are here and struggling for a better life."