President Barack Obama has requested $3.7 billion in emergency funds to handle unaccompanied minors, who continue to arrive at the Southern border in record numbers from Central American countries torn apart by violence.
The request includes $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which operates the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program.
This part of his request was met with support from immigration advocates, including some who had assailed the president days earlier for suggesting a speedier deportation process for minors.
A healthy chunk of that money would go to finding residential or foster homes for migrant children while plans are made for either their return home or a longer-term arrangement in America.
But here’s a serious question nobody seems to be talking about: Will ORR find takers for those funds?
The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that about 10 percent of unaccompanied minors are placed with foster care providers. Four years ago that amounted to about 600 youths; in 2012 the number was 1,200. This year, the estimates reach 10,000 youths by year’s end.
ORR spent $687 million on shelter care between 2000 and 2012, according to the website www.fedspending.org. Organizations who receive these funds provide housing and are also responsible for coordinating medical, education, language and life skills services for the youths.
This year alone, fiscal 2014, ORR plans to spend more than $350 million on such programs. Next year, it could be more than $500 million.
But Youth Services Insider is getting the sense behind the scenes that ORR might have a tough time finding youth-serving organizations with the capacity, and willingness, to serve unaccompanied minors.
“We need beds now,” said ORR’s Elaine Kelley, on a conference call with child welfare leaders and providers in California.
There were two opportunities, ORR explained on the call. One was a standard solicitation for providers, which has since been published and has a deadline of August 5. Only providers licensed by state child welfare agencies are eligible for the grants.
The other was for providers to submit direct proposals under what’s called “urgent and compelling” circumstances. If a provider could bring 50 beds to the table, it didn’t even need to compete for money: ORR could directly and immediately negotiate.
To date, the “urgent and compelling” process has yielded just five awards:
- Abbott House, Irving, N.Y., $3 million
- Board of Child Care, Baltimore, $2.4 million
- Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., $775,000
- Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, Tampa, Fla., $958,000
- Neighbor to Family, Daytona Beach, Fla., $2.7 million
Those are all true stopgap grants that run only from June of 2014 to this September. On the California call, Kelley said ORR was authorized to fund under the urgent and compelling rule through September of 2015.
It will be very interesting to see the results of the $350 million solicitation, which would lock in three years of funding for providers. You have to think a lack of options from the child welfare community means that ORR will be forced to go shopping somewhere in the private sector.
The administration has already begun to make deals with state governments to repurpose underused or vacant public facilities. Connecticut rejected such a request, and Massachusetts is considering it.
ORR’s best bet in the nonprofit world is perhaps Southwest Key, a youth services provider in multiple states that has a hand in both juvenile justice and child welfare. Key is by far the largest recipient of ORR money already – $184 million between 2007 and 2012 – so it’s hard to imagine anyone with more ability to scale up quickly.
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.