Biden administration officials last month moved $180 million from one troubled contractor to another to ensure that it can keep using two South Texas facilities in which migrant youth are regularly detained. An official notice published in the Federal Register on November 30 indicates that $178,007,159 originally slated to go to Comprehensive Health Services, Inc. will now be paid to Southwest Key Programs, Incorporated.
The federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, runs a network of facilities in which young migrants traveling to the United States without adult relatives are held. At the end of November 2021, ORR held 12,335 youth in its network of facilities.
Comprehensive Health Services, previously owned by Caliburn International, an 8,500-employee company that counted former Secretary of Homeland Security and Trump chief-of-staff John Kelly as a board member, gave up a large ORR contract in September. The company had suffered significant failures and criticism, in particular at the Homestead Detention Center in South Florida. That facility closed in October 2019, though Biden administration officials have discussed reopening it.
To ensure that it could continue holding unaccompanied youth, ORR moved several contracts formerly held by CHS to other companies. Southwest Keys received two of those. One contract for almost $94 million covers a facility in Los Fresnos, Texas. A separate $84 million contract covers a facility in El Paso.
In the past, Southwest Keys has come under intense criticism. In September 2018, for example, the Arizona Department of Health Services informed the Austin-based nonprofit that, due to its “flippant attitude” toward the state’s request for evidence of background security checks, the state would move to revoke its operational licenses. That month, a jury convicted one of the organization’s employees of sexually abusing children at a Mesa, Arizona facility. In June 2019, a former employee at the organization’s Brownsville, Texas facility was charged with sexual solicitation of a minor he met while the child was held in Southwest Key’s custody.
That August, the inspector general for the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services reported that “Southwest Key did not meet or properly document that it met certain safety standards for the care or release of some children in its custody.” That same month, the department’s inspector general reported that Southwest Key did not have adequate security controls for personally identifiable information it gathered about the children in its custody. In a recent episode in May 2020 Southwest Key staff called sheriff’s deputies to help deal with an angry child at the organization’s San Antonio facility. The organization’s staff watched as deputies repeatedly shot the boy with a taser gun.
According to the federal government, ORR’s Administration for Children and Families handed Southwest Keys the contract “to ensure the continuation of residential services for the capacity of 1,312 shelter beds.”
The agency also moved a different CHS contract to Urban Strategies, a company identified as having a location in San Benito, Texas, but which I have never heard of. According to the government, Urban Strategies will operate 100 beds.