HHS Ready to Spend on Unaccompanied Minors: “We Need Beds Now”

Note: This story was updated on June 25.

If your organization can serve Spanish-speaking youth, and you have access to bed space (preferably a lot of it), then Uncle Sam needs YOU.

And he’s willing to pay.

In February, Youth Services Insider reported on the reasons behind the $600 million boom in federal appropriations for the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC), or “Unaccompanied Minors” program.

Bottom line: the number of unaccompanied children caught at the border went from 12,000 in 2012 to about 60,000 in 2014, leaving the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) gasping to keep up with demand for bed space. Most of the youths come through Mexico from Honduras and Guatemala, countries ripped apart by violence.

Now, HHS is getting aggressive about spending the new money, and is reaching out to family services providers in an attempt to establish new placement options for incoming youths.

“We need beds now,” said Elaine Kelley of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which oversees the UAC program, on a call with child welfare leaders and providers in California.

There are two tracks on which HHS is fielding proposals for organizations that are interested in the business of supporting these minors:

Urgent and Compelling: This is a classification that enables ORR to take direct proposals from anyone who can put together 50 beds, and fund them quickly. Funding on this track will run out in September of 2015, although it is certainly possible that the situation will be “urgent and compelling” then.

Request for Proposals: The standard RFP will be due on August 5, and will likely allow for smaller providers then the urgent/compelling. Grantees approved through this process will be funded for three years.

The funds for serving this population of youth have swelled from $268 million in 2013 to $868 million in 2014, and the administration is asking for $2 billion for fiscal 2015. The projected number of unaccompanied minors for next year is 90,000.

“We don’t call it an influx anymore,” said Kelley of the burgeoning UAC program. “It’s just what we do.”

She described the full cadre of placement options that HHS maintains under UAC:

  • Shelter care
  • Therapeutic foster and group homes (this is where the biggest need exists, Allen said)
  • Structured residential programs
  • Staff-secure
  • Juvenile facilities (if the child is a danger to himself)

When the arrangement on unaccompanied minors was first forged in the early 2000s, some savvy residential care providers were able to fill bed space left vacant by declining need and desire for such services in the domestic child welfare market.

But that was in a time of more manageable numbers, when youths were processed fairly quickly by customs and shuttled to such programs for short-term care until youths could be reunified in the U.S. or safely returned home.

Now, reports indicate that youths are often detained by customs for more than three days, and are then sent to military bases in either Texas, California or Oklahoma. From there, it’s on to more stable placements, followed hopefully by a kinship placement or return home.

ORR is looking to ramp up the array of placement options and soon phase out the whole “hundreds of children living on military bases” step in the process.

It will be interesting to see what organizations or local governments do with this potential. Organizations with 50 or more beds to spare are few and far between, so you have to think the best potential is for organizational expertise to be paired with municipal vacant space.

Could a shuttered juvenile detention center, for example, be retrofitted for child welfare purposes and managed by care providers in a way that worked? Perhaps a closed-down school?

There is one obvious risk in taking on such a venture: Congress could move to roll back the entire policy of DHS handing over custody of captured minors to HHS, turning off the tap for serving these youth.

The DHS-HHS arrangement on unaccompanied minors is a great achievement in compassionate partnership between two federal entities. But the exploding scope of the program has put UAC into the proximity of two political third rails: spending increases and immigration reform.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly.

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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.