More than 4,900 migrant kids are living in Texas shelters

Number of unaccompanied migrant children held in Texas

The number of migrant children in Texas shelters decreased last month.

These shelters are where some unaccompanied minors go after leaving temporary Customs and Border Protection facilities like the one in Clint, which came under intense scrutiny after reports surfaced in June alleging children were held without adequate water, food and proper sanitation.

About 8% of those apprehended or denied entry at the U.S. border in June were unaccompanied minors, who are sometimes sent to these shelters temporarily if officials cannot find U.S.-based sponsors to take them in. The shelters are run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and regulated by the state.

As of July 18, Texas’ 35 state-licensed shelters had permission to accommodate up to 6,286 children, according to the health commission. With 4,937 kids living in them, that means they’re at 78% capacity.

A facility operated by Southwest Key that housed 51 children last month was no longer housing any children as of July 18. Officials with the nonprofit shelter operator did not return phone calls to confirm whether the Southwest Key-Combes facility in Harlingen had permanently closed.

The data does not reflect children held at a federal facility in Carrizo Springs that opened late last month. Around 200 teenagers were living there in early July, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, though that number is constantly in flux. The 1,300-bed facility, a former camp for oilfield workers, opened to alleviate the dangerous overcrowding, prolonged detention and filthy conditions at some Border Patrol facilities.

This month’s drop in the number of children in Texas shelters was the sharpest decline since a precipitous drop in January, when a temporary shelter in Tornillo, near El Paso, closed. The hastily built tent city was designed for 360 children when it opened in June, but by December it held 2,700 children.

As of June, more than 5,700 unaccompanied migrant children lived in 35 shelters across Texas.

Shelters are meant to serve as temporary homes for children after they arrive in the U.S., typically without adults. Despite the recent decrease, the number of children held in shelters across the country has increased dramatically since last summer. It’s unclear how much of the surge can be attributed to a greater number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and how much is the result of federal policies that have slowed the rate at which children are paired with sponsors.

According to the federal government, some of the children have been released sooner than anticipated because, in late December, the administration ended a portion of its strict screening policies that had slowed the placement of migrant kids with relatives.

On Dec. 19, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the Office of Refugee Resettlement would still fingerprint sponsors and cross-check their information with FBI national criminal history, state repository records and U.S. Department of Homeland Security arrest records. But it said it would stop doing such extensive background checks on other members of the household.

Throughout 2018, detention shelters asked regulators for permission to add more beds as the number of children in their care ballooned. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission decides whether shelters get a capacity variance, which allows them to house more children.

Those shelters, licensed as child care providers, have a long history of regulatory inspections that have uncovered serious health and safety deficiencies.

A Texas Tribune review of state records found that, between 2015 and 2018, inspectors discovered more than 450 health and safety violations at the facilities, which can each house anywhere from 20 to more than 1,400 children at a time.

The facilities’ inspection reports, though often light on details, paint a picture of the abuses that young children may face in a foreign environment where many have language barriers and a history of trauma from the journey to the U.S.

Counts of children on this page are current as of July 2019, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Southwest Key Programs Inc.

Federal funding received from 2016-18: $1.1 billion

Number of unaccompanied migrant children held in Texas

Southwest Key Programs, the private contractor operating a converted Walmart in Brownsville as a shelter for more than 1,000 children, is the largest operation in Texas authorized to take in children separated from their parents. Founded in 1987, the nonprofit says its mission is to “provide quality education, safe shelter and alternatives to incarceration for thousands of youth each day.”

Inspectors found more than 200 violations at the group’s 16 facilities in the last three years, records show. On Oct. 11, 2017, at a Southwest Key facility in San Benito, an employee appeared drunk when he showed up to work. A drug test later found the employee was over the legal alcohol limit to drive. Inspectors also found shampoo dispensers filled with hand sanitizer and bananas that had turned black. In two instances, children were made to wait before receiving medical care — three days for a child with a broken wrist and two weeks for a child with a sexually transmitted disease.

A spokesman for Southwest Key said the organization had worked to correct the problems identified by regulators. Of the list of violations, then-spokesman Jeff Eller said, "While it's not inaccurate, it's grossly unfair to say that without acknowledging that we acknowledged our mistakes and made immediate corrections."

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
Southwest Key - Casa PadreBrownsville29985
Southwest Key - El PresidenteBrownsville29312
Southwest Key - Casa AntiguaSan Benito23234
Southwest Key - Nueva EsperanzaBrownsville36232
Southwest Key - Casa Rio GrandeSan Benito27193
Southwest Key - Casa QuetzalHouston28182
Southwest Key - Casa SunzalHoustonN/A165
Southwest Key - Casa MontezumaChannelview21146
Southwest KeyConroe13142
Southwest Key - La EsperanzaBrownsville2387
Southwest Key - Shelter Care ProgramCanutillo382
Southwest Key - Casita Del ValleClint279
Southwest Key - Casa HoustonHouston1060
Southwest KeyHouston1552
Southwest Key - Casa FranklinEl Paso846
Southwest Key - Casa BlancaSan Antonio1539
Southwest Key - CombesHarlingen160

BCFS Health and Human Services

Federal funding received from 2016-18: $860.1 million

Number of unaccompanied migrant children held in Texas

BCFS Health and Human Services is the second-largest contractor operating in Texas. The group operates six facilities that may accept migrant children. It ran the now-closed temporary Tornillo shelter and also runs the recently-opened Carrizo Springs facility. The group was founded in 1944, according to its website.

At a Harlingen facility owned by BCFS, employees were alleged to have struck up “inappropriate relationships” with children in their care. Children complained of raw and undercooked food, and one child in late 2016 suffered an allergic reaction after a staff member gave the child a snack.

In April at another BCFS facility in San Antonio, a staff member helped arrange for a child’s family member to send the child money — but when the cash arrived, the staff member kept it. The year before, an employee gave children “inappropriate magazine pages” that depicted naked women, while a few months before, staff members were found to have failed to supervise their wards closely enough to prevent one child from “inappropriately” touching two others.

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
BCFS International Children's ShelterHarlingen22515
BCFS HHS International Children's ServicesBaytown4207
BCFS Health and Human Services, Emergency ShelterDriscoll0182
BCFS Region Children's Assessment CenterSan Antonio20118
BCFS HHS International Children's Services Emergency ShelterSan Antonio362
BCFS HHS International Children’s Services Emergency ShelterRaymondville237
Baptist Child and Home MinistriesSan Antonio222

Comprehensive Health Services

A group called CHSI applied in August to open three new shelters — two in Los Fresnos and one in San Benito — to care for unaccompanied boys and girls up to 17 years old or as young as infants, documents show. The name refers to Comprehensive Health Services, a Florida-based company that has previously received contracts from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Its three shelters opened in late September or early August and have a combined capacity of 610.

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
CHSI Norma Linda ShelterLos Fresnos4219
CHSI Los Fresnos ShelterLos Fresnos1133
CHSI San Benito ShelterSan Benito682


Federal funding received from 2016-18: $60.7 million

Upbring operates two facilities that accept unaccompanied minors and children separated from their parents by immigration authorities. The company was previously known as Lutheran Social Services of the South.

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
Bokenkamp (Lutheran Social Services)Corpus Christi2387
Lutheran Social Services of the South (New Hope)McAllen1148

Catholic Charities

Federal funding received from 2016-18: $21 million

Catholic Charities, which has worked with the federal government to resettle refugees since at least 1983, operates three shelters for unaccompanied children through its branch at the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
St. Michaels Home for ChildrenHouston1529
St. Michaels Home for Children IIHouston520
Assessment Center of Tarrant CountyFort Worth39

St. Peter St. Joseph Children's Home

Federal funding received from 2016-18: $23.1 million

St. Peter St. Joseph Children’s Home, which began as an orphanage in 1891, according to its website, operates an emergency shelter in San Antonio with a contract to house unaccompanied migrant children.

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
St Peter - St Joseph Children's Home Emergency ShelterSan Antonio2675

Shiloh Treatment Center Inc.

Federal funding received from 2016-18: $17.2 million

Shiloh Treatment Center Inc. was first incorporated in 1995, according to the Houston Chronicle. It first began receiving federal funding to house migrant children in 2013. It has been dogged by allegations of abuse following the 2001 death of 16-year-old Stephanie Duffield at the center after she was restrained by staff, but the treatment center has been found to be in compliance with state requirements. Shiloh did not respond to a request for comment.

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
Shiloh Treatment CenterManvel922

Seton Home

Federal funding received from 2016-18: $9.7 million

Seton Home, which opened in 1981, according to its website, operates a facility in San Antonio.

FacilityCityViolations in
past 3 years
Unaccompanied children
(As of July 18)
Seton HomeSan Antonio1734

Chris Essig, Elbert Wang, Paul Cobler, Annie Daniel and Julián Aguilar contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Jeff Eller, a former communications adviser to Southwest Key, is a donor and former board member of The Texas Tribune. Upbring has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. The Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. View a complete list.