Report: California Immigration Facilities Failing Kids With Disabilities

This photo of the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility was taken on Jan. 15, 2016. (Tyche Hendricks/KQED)

A report from the largest disability rights group in the country says that immigration facilities across the state are failing to provide enough care or education to children with disabilities in their custody.

Investigators with Disability Rights California (DRC), who are authorized by the state to monitor conditions at any facility that houses individuals with disabilities, spent the past year visiting sites in California where the federal government is holding undocumented minors.

Those nine facilities are run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency responsible for the welfare of migrant children who arrive at the U.S. border without a parent or are separated from them.

DRC staff attorneys interviewed 150 children and found many were suffering from symptoms of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disabilities, but were not getting counseling or medication. The DRC also faulted the facilities for failing to provide proper levels of education to their wards.

In a statement, ORR said the safety of unaccompanied children is their "top priority" and that "each shelter has medical providers and mental health counselors on site 24/7." ORR added that unaccompanied children "receive medical and mental health screenings, vaccinations, and any follow up care needed for injuries or illnesses they had when they were arrived. Children who have health conditions that cannot be treated on site are taken to local hospitals."

'The Most Restrictive Settings'

According to the ORR Guide for Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied, children with special needs should be placed in a facility with "the general population but that is able to provide services and treatment for special needs" while striving for "the least restrictive setting in the best interests of the child."

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However, the DRC found that 81% of the teenagers placed at the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility were placed there because of suicidal ideation (suicidal thoughts) or other mental health concerns.

The immigrant children housed in this location are, according to the DRC’s report, "held in similarly or more restrictive settings as compared to the juvenile delinquency system."

For example, migrant kids were living in isolated cellblock units, subject to pepper spray and other forms of force or discipline, and allowed outside only for limited periods of time.

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"A lot of these children have self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation or have behavioral issues and then, therefore, are placed in that most restrictive setting," said DRC staff attorney Katherine Mathews.

The report says five of the 11 children interviewed at the Yolo County facility reported being sprayed with a chemical agent.

"This is what was going on for children with disabilities," Mathews said.

At BCFS, another secure facility in Fairfield, clinical staff told DRC they had "often served children with mental health disabilities such as PTSD, anxiety and depression," and recalled at least one child with autism in their care.

Inadequate Education

According to the California Department of Education, each child in public school who receives special education must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP), documenting their educational abilities and outlining what services the child might be eligible for.

"What we found overwhelmingly is that, besides Yolo, none of these children were receiving any kind of in-depth Individualized Education Programs," Mathews said.

The ORR manual requires that care facilities conduct educational assessments within 72 hours of admission and requires each child to receive at least six hours of "structured education, Monday through Friday, throughout the entire year in basic academic areas."

The Trump administration has announced it will cut funding from these educational programs.

However, according to the DRC report, ORR does not "require any type of screening for special education or any development of IEPs."

It also allows caregivers to "adapt or modify local educational standards to develop curricula and assessments, based on the average length of stay" of each child.

During interviews with children in California facilities, DRC investigators found students with vastly different educational backgrounds being placed in classes together. For example, a teenager who had completed 11 years of school was in the same classroom as a teenager who had completed four.

"It really was placing a bunch of kids — coming from all different kinds of educational backgrounds — in the same large classroom," Mathews said.

Lacking Medical and Mental Health Care

Through the course of the DRC's investigation, the group alleges that ORR's vague and inconsistent policies regarding health care for immigrant children led to wide variation between care facilities.

Along with inconsistent medical examination standards, DRC found that children housed in ORR facilities also "suffer from a lack of comprehensive medical and dental care."

In light of these findings, Mathews said DRC will be pushing for greater government oversight of the facilities and increased public awareness.

"We really want to make sure that the Legislature and the public are aware of what's going on," Mathews said. "And also to make sure that these children are protected, and they're receiving the same treatment, the same education and the same level of safety and concern that the rest of California children are receiving."

KQED's Angela Corral contributed to this report.

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