Trump administration awarded millions to companies with checkered records to care for migrant children

Trump administration awarded millions to companies with checkered records to care for migrant children

Originally Published in CNN

Priscilla Alvarez - December 8, 2020

(CNN) The Trump administration awarded grants totaling $58 million to two companies with checkered records to care for unaccompanied migrant children, according to a newly-released Senate report, which concluded that the department's failures could have endangered children.

The findings from the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations are the latest in a string of reports concerning the care of unaccompanied migrant children, who, after being apprehended at the border, are transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The bipartisan report details grants from HHS to two companies -- VisionQuest National, Ltd. and New Horizon Group Home, LLC -- despite their previous issues over inadequate care.
"HHS did not require either company to disclose prior adverse actions their respective state and local governments had taken against them, and the Department did not research the disciplinary history of either company," Tuesday's 59-page report states, adding that the oversights could've put children "trusted to the care of these companies" at risk.
CNN reached out to HHS, VisionQuest, and New Horizon for comment.
HHS funds a network of more than 100 shelters where migrant children who arrived in the United States without parents or guardians are provided care until they're released to sponsors.
As of December 4, there are approximately 3,150 children currently in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within HHS.
The federal agency offers grants to care providers to operate facilities, but an increase in arrivals of migrant children has prompted larger, for-profit companies to apply for funding opportunities, the report says. Committee found a number of shortcomings in their review.
For example, the city of Philadelphia transferred children out of programs run by VisionQuest, which operates facilities and programs for troubled youth, "due to confirmed instances of child abuse," including facility staff encouraging fights among residents. HHS later awarded the company a grant to house unaccompanied children in one of those facilities, according to the report.
New Horizon, which operated a residential facility in North Carolina for children requiring full-time care, had a running list of state violations, including "failure to hire necessary medical personnel."
Less than a year after state officials revoked the facility's operating license, HHS awarded New Horizon a grant for unaccompanied children in a new state facility.
The litany of issues made it difficult for VisionQuest and New Horizon to obtain zoning and licensing approval to open shelters, the Senate report says. "This means that taxpayers have paid for facilities that will never open," it continues.
While HHS has discontinued grants to VisionQuest and the grant to New Horizon, it had already disbursed over $32 million in grant funding for the facilities. The department is now trying to recuperate those funds, but that's dependent on whether the grantees appeal and the results.
"Our latest report makes clear that, while HHS has taken moderate steps to protect the safety of migrant children while in US government custody, significant gaps in our broken immigration system continue to fail an already vulnerable population of children," said Senator Tom Carper, ranking member of the committee, in a statement.
Senator Rob Portman, chairman of the committee, echoed Carper. "Our bipartisan report found that the Office of Refugee Resettlement failed to exercise appropriate oversight and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on organizations that could not acquire state licenses to open the planned shelter facilities," he said in a statement.
The HHS inspector general has separately revealed shortcomings in the agency's safety measures, including an ineffective reporting system for incidents of sexual misconduct and failure to include required security measures in inspection checklists.
HHS has said it's taken measures to improve care, addressing watchdog concerns and the new report from the Senate. The department, for example, has modified its process by requiring disclosure of licensing issues and allegations of abuse and is in the process of recouping funds given to facilities that didn't open, according to Tuesday's report.
The Senate subcommittee recommended HHS make new requirements permanent and encouraged reviewers to "proactively check state databases for information" of actions taken against applicants.
"These efforts would provide a more complete picture to HHS regarding whether a grantee's prior history could affect its ability to obtain an operating license. This would also allow HHS to confirm that no prospective grantee has a recent history of placing children in harmful situations," the report says.

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