As government cares for migrant children, private sector seeks profit in their detentions

A teenage girl who spoke with The Associated Press and "Frontline" said she and other children were constantly watched while detained inside a Florida facility for migrant children, not allowed to touch, and there were alarms on the windows.

“It looks like a camp, but sometimes it seems like a jail because you feel very trapped,” said the girl, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety.

Sheltering migrant children has become a growing business for Comprehensive Health Services Inc., the private, for-profit company paid by the U.S. government to hold some of the smallest migrant children.

The Florida-based government contractor is cashing in as the number of minors in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years.

A migrant toddler is cradled by a Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. caregiver at a "tender-age" facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A migrant toddler is cradled by a Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. caregiver at a "tender-age" facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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The migrant children are officially under the custody of the federal government.

The Trump administration has started shifting some of the caretaking of migrant children toward the private sector and contractors instead of the largely faith-based nonprofit grantees that have long cared for the kids.

So far, the only private company caring for migrant children is CHS, owned by Washington-area contractor Caliburn International Corp. In June, CHS held more than 20 percent of all migrant children in government custody. And even as the number of children has declined, the company’s government funding for their care has continued to flow. That’s partly because CHS is still staffing a large Florida facility with 2,000 workers even though the last children left in August.

Trump administration officials say CHS is keeping the Florida shelter on standby in case they need to quickly provide beds for more migrant teens, and that they’re focused on the quality of care contractors can provide, not about who profits from the work.

A young migrant boy walks with a Comprehensive Health Services caregiver at a "tender-age" facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A young migrant boy walks with a Comprehensive Health Services caregiver at a "tender-age" facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

“It’s not something that sits with me morally as a problem,” said Jonathan Hayes, director of the Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. “They’re not getting any additional money other than the normal grant or contract that would be received. We’re not paying them more just because they’re for profit.”

HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement runs migrant children programs by funding 46 organizations that operate more than 165 shelters and foster programs for more than 67,000 migrant children who came to the U.S. on their own or were separated from parents or caregivers at the border this budget year.

Overall, the federal government spent a record $3.5 billion caring for migrant children over the past two years to run its shelters through both contracts and grants.

During that time, CHS swiftly moved into the business of caring for migrant children, an AP analysis of federal data found. In 2015, the company was paid $1.3 million in contracts to shelter migrant children, and so far this year the company has received almost $300 million in contracts to care for migrant kids, according to publicly available data. The company also operates some shelters under government grants.

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Handprints representing migrant children line a hall at a "tender-age" facility for babies, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29 in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Handprints representing migrant children line a hall at a "tender-age" facility for babies, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29 in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly joined Caliburn’s board this spring after stepping down from decades of government service. He earlier had served as homeland secretary, where he backed the idea of taking children from their parents at the border, saying it would discourage people from trying to immigrate or seek asylum.

Critics say this means Kelly now stands to financially benefit from a policy he helped create.

In a statement, Caliburn’s president, Jim Van Dusen, said: “With four decades of military and humanitarian leadership, in-depth understanding of international affairs and knowledge of current economic drivers around the world, General Kelly is a strong strategic addition to our team.”

Today CHS is operating six facilities including three “tender age” shelters in the Rio Grande Valley that can house the youngest, infants and toddlers. And CHS has plans underway to run a 500-bed shelter in El Paso, Texas, the company said.

A Comprehensive Health Services caregiver watches TV with a young migrant at a "tender-age" facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

A Comprehensive Health Services caregiver watches TV with a young migrant at a "tender-age" facility for babies, children and teens, in Texas' Rio Grande Valley, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, in San Benito, Texas. Sheltering migrant children has become a booming business for Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based government contractor, as the number of children in government custody has swollen to record levels over the past two years. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Under Trump, the numbers of detained children grew in part due to new, strict requirements to screen every adult in a potential home, which significantly slowed reunifications until the policy ended late last year.

The government doesn’t disclose the names of individual shelters, nor how many children are in each one. But confidential government data obtained by AP shows that in June nearly one in four migrant children in government care was housed by CHS. That included more than 2,300 teens at Homestead and more than 500 kids in shelters in Brownsville, Los Fresnos and San Benito, Texas. For each teen held at Homestead at that time, it cost taxpayers an average $775 per day.

At the time, a total of 13,066 migrant children were being held in federally funded shelters. Those numbers have dropped sharply over the summer. By early October, HHS said there were 5,100 children in their care.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.