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Family detention centers can move forward with child care licensing despite outcry

University of Texas alumni staged a sit-in at the office of the dean at the McCombs school of business in Austin during a protest to end family detention in 2014.
University of Texas alumni staged a sit-in at the office of the dean at the McCombs school of business in Austin during a protest to end family detention in 2014.
Last month the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), approved a proposed rule that would allow the licensing of family detention centers as a child care facilities to move forward. But the outcry against the decision has only increased.

The move is widely understood to allow the facilities remain open after Judge Dolly Gee’s 2015 ruling said the federal government could not hold children in secure, unlicensed facilities. Immigration and child welfare advocates oppose the licensing of the facilities and say the state is lowering child care standards.

The Austin Chronicle reported on some of the reactions to the news:

“Child-care facilities exist to take care of children," wrote Virginia Raymond, an Austin-based immigration attorney who vocally opposes the move. The state of Texas, which requires most child-care centers to be licensed, also mandates through DFPS the specific minimal standards those centers must meet. Because family detention centers cannot meet those standards, these critical requirements are waived for the sole purpose of licensing these centers, so they can legally remain open.”

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission which houses the Department of Family and Protective Services responded with “ the licensure would protect the health and safety of children, as they found "an imminent peril to the public's health, safety, or welfare." However, the decision to license family detention centers is in fact the state's preferred approach to comply with a court order of last summer.” “The adopted rule (Rule 40) to license family detention centers, which became effective March 1, exempts the two facilities in Dilley and Karnes City from three of the minimum residential standards: 1) the limitation of four occupants to a room; 2) the limitation on a child sharing a bedroom with an adult; and 3) the limitations on children of different genders sharing rooms.”

Cristina Parker of Grassroots Leadership argues that “"Licensing family detention centers will not improve the conditions for children and women; DFPS is not seeking to make detention centers into child-care facilities,”. She and other advocates argue that these facilities will not any safer but that standards have been lowered for the facilities to remain open citing the facilities conditions as proof that they are not suitable for housing children.

“Six days a week, I walk into this facility [Dilley] and I meet with over 150 mothers who with them are their children who all are sick. They are crying. They have fevers. ... They are bloated. They have diarrhea. ... That is what we see every single day. And it is a sign of both the inadequacy of the child care that is provided and also the inhuman standards in which these children are put," testified Ian Philabaum, the underground project coordinator for the CARA pro bono project at Dilley.

The Karnes and Dilley detention centers will now have to apply for their licenses in the counties where they are located, Karnes and Frio Counties, respectively. We'll post updates when those hearing dates are announced. 

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Debate continues on controversial effort to license family detention centers as child-care facilities

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to license two federal family detention camps in the south Texas towns of Karnes and Dilley. In November 2015, Grassroots Leadership won an injunction that prohibited the state from passing an emergency rule to license the centers and mandated that the public be given an opportunity to comment on the licensing. At the public hearing held on December 9, more than 40 people testified against licensing including legal service providers, immigrant rights groups, faith leaders, and a former psychologist at the Karnes family detention camp. Over 1000 people also submitted written comments to TDFPS in opposition to the licensing.

At the time of the hearing, state officials including Governor Greg Abbott stated that the purpose of the licensing was to ensure the well-being of the children held at the Texas family detention centers. However, the state initiated its attempt to license the facilities after Federal District Court Judge Dolly Gee issued a decision that these family detention camps violate multiple of the standards set by the Flores Settlement for the detention of children by federal immigration officials. One of these standards is that children must be held in licensed childcare facilities.

As the agency and advocates prepare for another licensing hearing on February 4, state officials now admit that the decision to pursue licensing of the facilities stems from this federal court decision. “The (judge’s) decision left Texas and the federal government with an option to regulate the facility, or have these illegal immigrants released into Texas communities without regard for the federal government’s immigration disposition process,” Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins told the American-Statesman. “The federal government therefore requested licensure to prevent this and Texas agreed.”

Grassroots Leadership says that state officials’ new position confirms that the well-being of immigrant children was not the motive for licensing. The organization’s Executive Director Bob Libal told the American-Statesman, “This is not about the welfare of children...This is a desperate attempt for the state to bail out the federal government’s immigrant detention regime.”

Lawsuit halts licensing of private family detention centers as childcare facilities, at least for now

CCA's family detention center in Dilley
CCA's family detention center in Dilley
A lawsuit filed by Grassroots Leadership (my organization, and a co-sponsor of Texas Prison Bid'ness) won a temporary injunction on November 20th that halts the Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services from licensing two large, for-profit detention centers in South Texas as childcare facilities.  Private prison corporations Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group are seeking the licenses for the prisons in Dilley and Karnes City respectively in order to comply with a finding by Federal Judge Dolly Gee that detaining children in unlicensed, secure detention centers violates a decades old settlement known as Flores.   

250th District Judge Karin Crump ruled that the state had errered in issuing and emergency that allowed the agency to license the facilities without interested parties, including Grassroots Leadership, being able to comment on the licensure rule.  The state has now issued a proposed permanent rule on the licensing that allows public comment before December 13th.  

Similar to the emergency rule, the permanent rule also proposes to reduce child safety standards that are applicable to all other childcare facilities in Texas, essentially fitting the licensing regulation to the facilities rather than making the two detention centers meet all normal child welfare standards.  Organizations and invividuals are able to make comments on the proposed licensure of the facilities through a form on the Grassroots Leadership website.  

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