Immigrant children are being placed by feds into abusive homes, reports reveal

Trump’s executive order doesn’t fix this problem.

Credit: Diana Ofosu
Credit: Diana Ofosu

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has spent billions since 2013 placing minors who cross the border into foster and shelter facilities throughout the country, many of which have a history of abuse and lax oversight, according to multiple reports.

One organization, San Antonio-based BCFS, has received over $800 million from the federal agency to care for thousands of kids detained by immigration officers since 2009 through the “Unaccompanied Alien Children’s Program.” Children who crossed the border unaccompanied and those who were taken from their parents when they crossed together are described as “unaccompanied alien children” by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

BCFS contracts include providing shelter and transitional and long-term foster care for immigrant children that are under ORR care, and post-release and “home study” services for those kids. Texas foster home inspectors have found a number of disturbing cases of neglect and abuse in BCSF foster facilities over the past three years. This includes foster parents physically beating kids, calling them by derogatory names, allowing unreported people to visit the home, and allowing pregnant foster kids who couldn’t tolerate a meal provided to simply go hungry.

“Children continued to bathe together despite having two prior incidents of inappropriate behavior with each other,” read findings from a Texas Health and Human Services inspection contained in a July 18, 2017 report.


“During the course of the investigation it was reported that a child witnessed another child being physically disciplined,” read another report from September 5, 2017.

“The caregiver admitted to holding the child in a prone restraint for 2-3 minutes. The incident report states that the child was in the restraint for 4 minutes,” Texas investigators wrote in April 2016.

According to the Texas Observer, in response to the Trump administration’s policy to separate children from their families, Texas officials have allowed BCFS and other facilities to expand their capacity by as much as 50 percent — more than their child-care licenses would allow. President Donald Trump’s new executive order, which he signed Wednesday, would detain families and kids together, but would not prevent children from being placed into foster care if they cross the border alone or if they are removed from their parents by officials for any reason. 

Since 2003, undocumented immigrant children who crossed the border without a guardian and were detained by U.S. Homeland Security agents have been put under the care of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Thousands of kids have been placed in ORR custody, where many end up in privately run shelters and foster care homes throughout the country.


The Obama administration expanded the program in 2014 after more than 68,000 unaccompanied children from Central America and Mexico crossed into the United States.

According to the Texas Tribune and Reveal, federal officials placed children under the care of multiple organizations after they have been cited by state inspectors with deficiencies and abuse.

According to a ThinkProgress review of records, Texas investigators cited BCFS with 18 violations since June 15, 2015. Of those, 11 were given standard risk levels of high, four as medium-high, and three as medium. The reports did not identify impacted children, so it was not immediately clear whether or not immigrant children were harmed in these specific instances.

Some of the other violations pinned to BCFS sounded minor at first, and included unsafe living conditions for the children, like an expired fire extinguisher in 2017 and an extinguisher not being placed in the kitchen in 2016. There was also a lot of incomplete paperwork: one caregiver didn’t report a frequent visitor of their home to regulators, another didn’t report the name of a foster parent to the FBI, and one did not properly complete the allergy section on a pair of child records.

Other allegations sounded far more serious. In November 2017, for instance, investigators found that six foster homes simply filled out domestic violence forms following incidents instead of calling the police as they were required.


There were also instances of kids not receiving basic living necessities; in 2016, a child was not given “appropriate” supplies to care for their hair, children at a home did not have undergarments, and one didn’t have the correct-sized clothes.

And there were situations where caretakers failed to properly watch their kids. In 2017, one foster parent and her adult daughter left their nine-year-old unsupervised, allowing the child to leave the home. In another situation, a child on a safety plan was left in a room alone with another child. And on one occasion, two teenage foster children went to a neighborhood swimming pool without their foster parent, who was unaware that one of the teens almost drowned.

But a number of other violations also cited grave physical and emotional abuse. A July 20, 2015 report found foster parents referred to children in their care with “pet names that have a derogatory connotation.”

In 2017, investigators also found cases where a child witnessed another child being “physically disciplined.” 

In one 2016 case, a child was held in a prone restraint by a caregiver for four minutes. In 2015, it was learned that foster children were forced to kneel on the floor while facing the wall for 30 minutes at a time, as a form of discipline. And on January 7, 2016, investigators wrote: “When a child in-care. who was pregnant, could not tolerate the meal offered the caregiver did not provide an alternate meal to meet the child’s health needs.”

BCFS spokesperson Krista Piferrer said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress that its system “has never been involved in making immigration policy,” and that it “has provided professional compassionate care to the hurting, disenfranchised and vulnerable who have been affected by life circumstances and disasters.”

“Similarly, over the years when there has been a humanitarian need, we’ve responded by providing outstanding, high quality care for unaccompanied minors,” the statement read. “We will continue to provide services to these young victims because we recognize an obligation that someone needs to care for them.” BCFS also noted that it believes “children should remain with their families, unless they are victims of abuse, neglect or harm.”

Update: In an additional statement emailed to ThinkProgress, Piferrer said “safety is our top priority, and under no circumstance have we ever — or would we ever — tolerate endangerment of a child.” Piferrer also said that each of the citations listed in this piece had been corrected, and provided ThinkProgress an internal spreadsheet describing the outcomes of each incident, which she said have been verified by the state.