Anyone who has seen the movie Fight Club is familiar with the first two rules:
- You do not talk about Fight Club
- You do not talk about Fight Club
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has put a similar gag order on its grantees under contract to work on the highly controversial Unaccompanied Alien Children program. These grantees are the organizations that care for and assist unaccompanied minors before they are united with family, placed into foster care or returned home.
Since The Chronicle covers the domestic side of this issue – it is U.S.-based youth-serving organizations that are involved in the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program – we sought to report on the experience of veteran providers in this space.
Our questions were these:
- How long have you been involved with the UAC program?
- What percentage of your revenue is the contract?
- Has HHS asked you to take on a higher number of youths since this influx began?
- What advice do you have for organizations that might pursue this work?
Why ask those questions? Because HHS does not have enough residential bed space or foster homes to meet demand, and it is desperately seeking to establish relationships with more providers. Our hope was to illuminate the experience of existing providers to help potential new ones consider the pros or cons of getting involved.
Immediately, we started hearing back from providers with a common phrase: We cannot talk to you about this. At all.
Representatives from both Florence Crittenton Services of Orange County and Southwest Key explained to reporter Victor Valle that they were bound by contract not to discuss UAC with the press.
We appealed to HHS for permission to interview the organizations if we limited it to these questions. Our request was ignored by Kenneth Wolfe, spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, the HHS agency that oversees UAC.
We then sought permission from HHS communications, explaining that our previous request had gone without a response. HHS spokesman Mark Weber called us back, apologizing and promising to make a determination on our request in short order.
That was in July, and we have not heard from Weber since. An e-mail follow-up to him was replied to with an automatic message saying he would be out of the office for most of August. Thanks guy!
One UAC provider, who agreed to speak with us only to provide background, said there was an understanding between veteran providers and HHS – dating back to the Bush Administration – that the UAC program was not to be a featured program touted by organizations.
But new providers have been added in the past two years to handle the recent surge in immigrant minors arriving to seek shelter here. Many of them started to seek funds locally and nationally around their UAC work, according to the leader who spoke with YSI, pushing local government and other funding sources for additional support.
HHS was miffed at this, the leader said, since the funding for UAC should cover any expenses involved with the program. Seeking state or municipal funds for the unaccompanied minors takes a program that is philosophically controversial for some, and adds another layer of controversy about cost to local taxpayers.
Now, the UAC provider agreements come with a contractual stipulation that the organizations do not discuss the program.
YSI can see the reasoning behind a ban on fundraising, making UAC funds an unmatchable pot of money. But treating shelter care like it’s some sort of covert operation is a stretch.
Our goal was to share the experience of UAC veterans with the potential new providers that HHS clearly needs. What is the harm in that? The agency apparently does not feel the need to explain it to us.
Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly.