"Secretive" Shelters House Immigrant Children - Are They Also a Haven for Abusers?

“Secretive” Shelters House Immigrant Children – Are They Also a Haven for Abusers?

“Hidden in Plain Sight”: Hundreds of Immigrant Children and Teens Housed in Opaque Network of Chicago-Area Shelters

by Jodi S. CohenDuaa Eldeib and Melissa Sanchez/ProPublica

One shelter, in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, still bears an awning with the name of a nursing home, though no senior citizens have lived there in years.

Another is a two-story, brick home next to a storefront Zumba studio in Rogers Park.

At a third, a converted convent on a busy residential street in Beverly, neighbors sometimes glimpse teenage boys playing volleyball and soccer in a gated yard but have no idea who they are.

These buildings and others in Illinois anonymously house migrant children detained after crossing the border to the United States — some who came on their own and, more recently, those forcibly separated from their parents.

As the Trump administration has come under fire in recent weeks for its zero tolerance immigration crackdown, much attention has focused on the children and conditions at shelters along the country’s southern border and in major metropolitan areas on the coasts.

But here in Illinois, an opaque web of 11 shelters houses thousands of children each year, including more than 100 in recent months who were separated from their parents. By Thursday, in a rush to meet a court-ordered deadline, all but 17 of those children had been reunited with their families, according to the organizations that house them.

ProPublica Illinois reporters identified the shelter locations in Chicago and the suburbs and then obtained police reports, state inspection records and other documents, as well as conducted interviews with children, parents, lawyers and current and former employees to learn more about where the children are detained and the care they receive.

The nonprofit that runs most of the facilities, Heartland Human Care Services, is part of Heartland Alliance, a large, Chicago-based anti-poverty institution that works on health services, homelessness prevention and other social issues and is generally well-regarded. But troubling incidents have also occurred behind the iron fences that surround many of these shelters, our investigation found.

Heartland has received little public scrutiny until now, although, of the more than 100 federally contracted sites around the country, it has received the fourth-highest amount of federal dollars for housing unaccompanied minors since fiscal year 2015 — more money than any other organization outside Texas.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services cited Heartland for a supervision violation after an employee was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor at the International Children’s Crisis Center in Bronzeville in 2015. The state agency concluded the inappropriate relationship allegation was unfounded and Heartland fired the employee, records show.

Heartland received another supervision citation in 2016 after DCFS found that children had engaged in sexual activity at its facility in Des Plaines, called Specialized Care for Immigrant Children or Casa Guadalupe. In addition, at least five children have run away from Heartland shelters between 2015 and 2017, according to reports from DCFS and the police.

There also has been at least one allegation of battery, though DCFS said the allegation could not be corroborated. Requests are still pending for other records that could shed more light on conditions.

Heartland declined to comment on any specific incidents but said it takes immediate action if “policies, practices and/or standards of care are not being followed.”

In recent weeks, Heartland was named in a lawsuit alleging negligence after an 11-year-old boy was injured by an older boy at Casa Guadalupe. It also was sued at least twice last month by lawyers working to reunite parents with their children. After recent media reports detailed several children’s serious allegations of mistreatment, including claims that staff injected a young boy with a sedative, local, state and federal authorities began asking questions of an agency unaccustomed to public criticism.

DCFS last week opened two investigations. Chicago aldermen, some angry they weren’t told shelters housing separated children were in their wards, passed an ordinance Wednesday that requires Heartland to disclose to city officials the addresses of its facilities and other information about them.

Five of the shelters are spread throughout Chicago. Two are in Rogers Park, the brick home called the International Youth Center that can house 15 children, and a larger site that can hold 70 children, known as the International Children’s Center. About 40 children can live in the former convent in Beverly, also called the International Children’s Center. A home in Englewood, named Casa Heartland at Princeton, has space for 19 children, while the largest site — the converted nursing home in Bronzeville — can hold as many as 250.

In addition to the Chicago sites, Heartland houses up to 116 children at its four cottages in Des Plaines on the campus of Maryville Academy, a Catholic child welfare agency.

Maryville also operates two of its own shelters, in Des Plaines and Bartlett, where 55 children are currently placed. Four children separated from their families were housed in the Maryville shelters, but they have since been reunited with their families.

Heartland has received more than $180 million in federal funds since the 2013 fiscal year for services for unaccompanied minors. The federal government has paid Heartland about $40 million so far this fiscal year, roughly the same amount awarded for all of last year, which was up from $25 million in 2016. Heartland attributed the jump to a change in the federal government’s staffing requirements, among other factors.

To hear the social service agency describe it, living at one of its shelters can be like a combination of school, day care and summer camp. Children spend six hours a day in class, play games and sports, and go on field trips to the zoo, museums and the beach, Heartland officials said. Most children will stay for a few weeks or months, until they are united with a family member or sponsor. Others may live at a shelter for more than a year.

But the facilities are, in effect, detention centers. Children are not free to leave. Most of the Chicago locations have little outdoor space. Former employees describe feeling at times like prison guards, as the children follow strict schedules and use bathrooms without locks.

Heartland answered many of ProPublica Illinois’ questions about its shelters but also said the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that takes custody of unaccompanied minors, has restricted how much information it can provide.

“But we also stand with children who…

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Featured image via CBS Evening News/YouTube.