Shelter for immigrant minors urged to let officials view facility after string of runaways

A city councilman in Tucson, Ariz., is demanding that a federally funded shelter for immigrant children open its doors to allow officials and the press to view the facility, after four Honduran teenagers ran away last month.

“The taxpaying public has a right to see the conditions from which these kids are fleeing,” Councilman Steve Kozachik said.

“They may be running because they don’t know what’s going on with their families back home. They may be running because of the conditions inside the facility. We don’t know.”

Southwest Key Programs, the Texas-based company that operates the facility and 22 others in the U.S., refuses to allow visitors and notes that “less than a fraction of one percent have absconded from our unaccompanied minor shelters.”

But Kozachik says the Tucson shelter has not been forthcoming since it opened last year.

“It’s not good when the media, elected officials and the general public can’t get in and see the condition under which these kids – who are already a vulnerable population – are living,” Kozachik told “And that causes me concern when kids start running away from these places.”

According to Tucson police department records, the four boys escaped the facility on Oct. 6 and 7. Shelter officials said in a statement that they followed protocol and notified the police as soon as the children fled:

“In the nearly 20 years that Southwest Key Programs has operated shelters for unaccompanied minors, there has never been an incident of a child from one of our unaccompanied minor shelters committing a crime in the local community. … Of the thousands of children we have served over the years, less than a fraction of one percent have absconded from our shelters.”

Kozachik said he is more concerned about the threat the local community poses to the kids, not the other way around.

“My concern is for their well-being,” he said. “They’re out in the community somewhere. We don’t know if they’re sleeping under a bridge. …

“We know they don’t speak the language well, we know they had psychological issues ... that would make them vulnerable to any kind of trafficking or ... simply being abused on the street.

“[The shelter] needs to start worrying for these kids as human beings who came here in a very vulnerable position … They need to care about their safety,” Kozachik said.

U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva, whose district contains the shelter, said last year that he was concerned “over the lack of adequate protection against discrimination and sexual assault for unaccompanied minors in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“The unaccompanied minors seeking shelter here risked life and limb to escape violence and poverty in Central America,” Grijalva said. “Too often, they find themselves exposed to new threats of discrimination and sexual assault once they’re here. These attacks are completely preventable with adequate protections, and HHS has the moral responsibility to ensure those precautions are in place.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, children can spend up to a year in a facility before being sent to a sponsor home – but on average, most spend 36 days or less, during which time they “do not integrate into the local community.”

“They are not permitted to visit the local town or area attractions unless supervised by approved staff. Each staff member is required to maintain visibility on children at all times and know the exact location of each child,” the HHS website states.

ORR spokesman Mark Weber told the LA Times that of the 34,000 unaccompanied minors placed in shelters over the past year, there have been 76 runaways.

“The Tucson facility in question is adding security cameras, increasing staffing and installing additional security doors to close off the path two of the teenagers used to leave,” he said.

According to federal law, children who enter the U.S. unaccompanied must be placed in shelters until they can be released to a family member or, if one can’t be found in the country, to an organization that will help find a foster-care home.

The ORR placed 23,670 children with sponsors in Fiscal Year 2015 – less than half the 53,550 it placed the year before, when children were surging across the border.