As Topeka Shelter Works To Reunite Migrant Kids With Families, Lawmakers Want To See Inside

Jun 24, 2018
Originally published on June 25, 2018 1:40 pm

A Topeka shelter has been receiving children who were separated from their parents at the border for about two weeks, its executive director confirmed Friday.

The Topeka campus of The Villages, Inc. started accepting children who had entered the country without a parent or other relative last year. It’s been scaling up its capacity for migrant children since then, and can now house up to 50 of those kids.

Crawford said the majority are still unaccompanied minors, not kids separated from their parents at the border this spring.

Working to reunite families

The kids have been staying anywhere from three days to five months, according to Crawford, though she said only a handful have been in their care as long as five months.

When kids arrive at The Villages, she says case managers immediately start looking for relatives or other people qualified to take the children in.

“We are a shelter, a temporary placement,” she said. “Our goal is to be able to move the children on to a more permanent placement.”

The migrant children’s placement at the shelter, and later with relatives or sponsors, is overseen by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, not the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

The Villages’ Topeka and Lawrence facilities are, however, licensed by the state of Kansas as youth residential centers, meaning they provide mental health services and 24-hour supervision. And, they’re authorized to take up to 30 kids from the Kansas foster care system who are in state custody.

The facility has historically taken in troubled kids from the juvenile justice system, and currently from foster care. Those kids are not housed in the same buildings as The Villages’ migrant children.

Lawmakers want to see inside

On Friday, several Democrats in the state Legislature called on Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer to seek more information about the care of the migrant children at the facility, noting The Villages is licensed by the state.

State Rep. John Alcala of Topeka said it shouldn’t matter that the kids are in federal custody.

"Who gives a shit what the state's authority is?" Alcala said at the news conference. "Are those kids being cared for, and how's the money being spent?"

Alcala said he tried to arrange a tour of the facility in Topeka this week, but the organization told him he would have to wait two weeks.

“I toured the facility about a decade ago. It was a fine facility then, and we just asked that we would be able to come in and tour the facility, see the living conditions, what they look like today, and maybe visit with some of the administration and ask them a few questions,” Alcala said.

Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita, Rep. Louis Ruiz of Kansas City, and Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley of Topeka joined Alcala in filling out a formal request to visit the facility July 5th.

Crawford said all visits to the facility sheltering migrant children have to be approved by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as part of the organization's agreement with the federal agency, thus the two-week turnaround.

“Anybody who receives ORR approval to come to our program, we would welcome with open arms,” Crawford said. “We're extremely proud of our facilities, we are proud of the programming we provide, so we have no issues or concerns about visitors coming.”

Alcala and the other Democratic lawmakers also alleged Colyer was supporting the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border and cooperating in the effort to send children to Topeka.

As Colyer competes in the Republican gubernatorial primary against Secretary of State Kris Kobach — who is known for his strong anti-immigration platform and has served as an adviser to the president — Alcala suggested the governor was allowing kids to be sent from the border to Kansas in order to appeal to Trump or his supporters.

“I think if you read between the lines, there may be politics that are being played by this governor with these young people’s lives,” Alcala said.

Colyer has not said he wanted separated kids to be sheltered in Kansas, nor does the state have a role in determining which children the Office of Refugee Resettlement sends to which shelters.

“We haven’t had any sort of communication on this, so the assertion that the governor’s done this to please Trump is just completely untrue,” said Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr.

Though The Villages has been receiving more migrant kids since the beginning of 2018, executive director Sylvia Crawford said that was due to the timing of its initial grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement in 2017, and not a result of the Trump administration’s now reversed “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Not for profit

Crawford said the kids coming in now might skew slightly younger, as they’re more likely to have come across the border with their parents, but the organization had received children ranging in age from ages 6 to 18 since they began working with the federal agency.

At the Friday press conference, Alcala asked who might be profiting from the placement of children placed in facilities like The Villages. The Office of Refugee Resettlement sends kids to shelters in Kansas and 13 other states.

Crawford said The Villages did not partner with the refugee resettlement office in order to make money. The $3.2 million granted to them by the federal government this year is money the organization can pull down to reimburse its expenses for the kids’ care, education and other needs, not a blank check, she said.

“There is no profit margin or anything like that,” Crawford said. “They (the Office of Refugee Resettlement) pay for what we provide and that's it.”

She said The Villages applied to serve as a shelter for kids placed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement after she heard a 2016 KCUR story about unaccompanied minors in Garden City who were unable to go to school. She said she started doing research and ended up on the federal agency’s website, reading through the proposal outlining the facilities needed to care for unaccompanied minors.

“My immediate reaction after I finished reading was ‘they are describing us,’” she said.

Creating a routine for kids

Crawford said many of the kids are grappling with trauma, and the mental and behavioral health issues that come from processing traumatic experiences.

“Every single one of them has had an incredibly difficult journey to get to where they are,” Crawford said. “Every single one of them has experienced a very traumatizing event.”

The Villages has hired several mental health clinicians, all of whom are bilingual, to help kids process those challenges. Crawford said each day’s schedule includes a group meeting with clinicians where kids can talk through their experiences with the rest of the kids in their house. 

There’s a school on the Topeka campus with bilingual instruction from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays for classes of about 12 kids. On weekends, they’ll have activities on the nonprofit’s 412-acre campus, or will go into town for outings to the zoo and other kid-friendly places.

Madeline Fox is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @maddycfox.

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