"Secretive" Shelters House Immigrant Children - Are They Also a Haven for Abusers? (Part 2)

“Secretive” Shelters House Immigrant Children – Are They Also a Haven for Abusers? (Part 2)

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“But we also stand with children who are alone or cross the border alone,” David Sinski, the executive director of Heartland Human Care Services, said in an interview. “I’m sure you can appreciate as a human rights organization … there are conversations all the time about how to ensure we stay focused on our mission of human rights and carrying out the work for vulnerable children.”

Heartland officials acknowledge that their mission has become more complicated this summer as they cared for children sent to them as part of a policy of separation they oppose because it causes “additional trauma” to already troubled families.

“We believe children and families seeking safety and refuge here in the U.S. should be treated with dignity,” Heartland said in a written statement. “We will continue to do all that it takes to provide for their safety and well-being while we work to reunify them with their parents.”

At a City Council hearing earlier this week, Sinski and an attorney for the organization said repeatedly that the federal government prohibited them from providing even the most basic information about how many children the agency is currently sheltering or how much money it receives to do the work.

“To have a partner who so willingly works against the very nature of what this city stands for, of being a sanctuary city, that cares for its children and is trying to do the right thing, I think it’s outrageous and disgusting,” Ald. Raymond Lopez, of the 15th Ward on Chicago’s Southwest Side, told Heartland officials during the hearing. “While your original goals may have been good, where you have wound up has put you in a bad place.”

At another meeting, Ald. Ameya Pawar, of the 47th Ward on the city’s North Side, argued that Heartland was taking a public beating as a stand-in for the Trump administration.

“These children should have never been separated. They shouldn’t be in Chicago. They should be with their parents,” said Pawar, who worked on refugee resettlement at Heartland as an intern nine years ago. “But they’re here and if any agency should be taking care of them, it should be Heartland Alliance. They do God’s work.”

New Scrutiny

The Trump administration’s controversial policy of removing children from their parents when they were caught illegally crossing into the United States thrust into the national spotlight a decades-old system designed with another set of children in mind.

Heartland Alliance began providing shelter for unaccompanied minors coming to the United States without their parents in 1995. The shelters operate under a contract with ORR but Heartland declined to provide its agreement, saying it was not allowed to do so. ORR has not yet responded to a request for those records or to questions about how it monitors facilities for unaccompanied minors. According to Heartland, the federal agency conducts weekly meetings with Heartland staffers to discuss the children, daylong visits to each site at least once a month and a weeklong visit at least once every two years.

Shelter locations are supposed to be kept secret, ostensibly to protect children who may be vulnerable to traffickers, smugglers or gangs. This also has meant the shelters operate with little public attention, raising questions about who, if anyone, is providing sufficient oversight.

DCFS’ oversight function is primarily technical, checking for compliance with minimum program standards during scheduled licensing inspections once a year.

“We’re very clear about what our role is,” said Neil Skene, DCFS special assistant to the director. “We are a state licensing agency. It’s a federal program. These are federal kids.”

The federal government, Skene said, holds the “first responsibility for the safety and well-being of these children.”

DCFS is charged with investigating allegations of abuse or neglect against any child in the state, but that typically occurs only after a call is made to report suspected harm.

Some aldermen, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said they were skeptical of DCFS’ ability to provide oversight, given the agency’s own decades-long history of…

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Featured image via CBS Evening News/YouTube.