Senators seek info on ORR grantees; ‘Allegations raise serious questions’

The U.S. Senate Committee on Finance last week sent a letter to the assistant secretary for Children and Families seeking information about its current and former grantees, including organizations like Southwest Key Programs and International Educational Services.

The letter, which was sent to Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Lynn A. Johnson by Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, seeks answers to a wide range of questions covering topics such as regulation and allegations of sexual abuse within some nonprofit entities nationwide that contract with the to hold minor migrants who either arrived alone or were separated from family members.

Grassley is committee chairman and Wyden ranking member.

The ORR, which is a division of the Administration for Children and Families, is charged with placing children in the least restrictive setting that is in the child’s best interest and providing shelter and care of those children through federally funded grantees.

“We write you today about this relationship between ORR and its grantees, and the alleged conduct of several grantees. Recent reports detail horrific and intolerable allegations of excessive compensation, self-dealing, and sexual abuse perpetrated by these taxpayer-funded grantees,” the letter states.

“These allegations raise serious questions about how some grantees have used federal funding, and whether ORR has failed to uphold its statutory duties to ensure the health and safety of children within their care.”

The number of children in ORR custody has grown dramatically since 2012. Fiscal Year 2018 — the year family separations began under President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy began — saw 49,100 youth referred, up from 40,810 in Fiscal Year 2017, but down from 59,170 in Fiscal Year 2016.

“Now, due to the crisis on the southern border, ORR is facing a dramatic spike in referrals of (unaccompanied children). In FY 2019, ORR has already received referrals of approximately 32,000 (unaccompanied children) (as of March 30), which is an increase over FY 2018 of almost 50%,” an ORR spokesperson told The Brownsville Herald in late April, adding that if the rate continues the ORR will hold the largest number of unaccompanied minors in the program’s history.

As of April 21, it had 12,650 children in custody.

Grassley and Wyden note in the letter that prior to 2012, ORR served fewer than 8,000 children each year.

A large number of these children are held in shelters by Southwest Key Programs, Comprehensive Health Services and BCFS Health and Human Services in Cameron and Willacy counties.

The senators are seeking information about all of these grantees as well as documentation and more information into specific allegations of misconduct by some organizations across the country.

In Brownsville, the senators have questions about Southwest Key Programs, and International Educational Services, which closed in Feb. 2018 after losing its grant funding.

The letter asks the ORR to explain the basis for that decision and to provide it with related documentation.

Last year, The Brownsville Herald reported that IES closed after it grossly overpaid its executives and over questionable leases that executive employees may have profited from, among other problems, according to a review of the program.

The letter also seeks information regarding an investigation into Southwest Key Programs’ Casa Padre—the largest facility housing immigrant children in the country— ordered by a county court judge last year.

“The facility is licensed by the State of Texas. The U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of HHS and Secretary Alex Azar, moved to block this investigation and to block the county court from asserting jurisdiction over welfare of children at the shelter,” the letter states.

The letter directs the ORR to answer 29 questions by May 31 and if the ORR cannot answer the questions, it must provide a written explanation as to why.

mreagan@brownsvilleherald.com