Update 6/23: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has confirmed that His House is holding infant children taken from their parents by the federal government, the Miami Herald reports. New Times also reported that His House has been sued for wrongful-death in the past for an infant death.
The U.S. government has been sending unaccompanied immigrant minors to a Miami Gardens shelter called His House Children's Home since at least 2008. In the past decade, the facility has been reportedly investigated by child-welfare advocates for abuse and has been cited by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for "possibly" failing to follow policy when handling the cases of at least 652 children.
In a December report, the ORR stated concern that His House was not conducting proper background checks on families that took in migrant kids: "His House (1) might not have followed ORR policies for 652 children regarding sponsor background checks, prompt medical care, provision of appropriate clothing, sponsor placement decisions, post-release services, or the notification of the Department of Homeland Security of the child’s release to a sponsor and (2) might have placed Federal funds totaling $9 million at risk of mismanagement or misappropriation."
The government decided to audit His House after a former employee was convicted of extortion. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit said His House did not agree with the federal government's findings.
His House was likely one of two facilities that U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said at a news conference yesterday were housing unaccompanied refugee kids, according to a source with knowledge of Miami's immigrant community. The news conference was held outside the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, which New Times reported Monday was quietly housing more than 1,000 migrant kids. The Miami Herald also speculated yesterday that Wasserman Schultz was referring to His House, as well as another facility, called Boystown, in Cutler Bay.
(Wasserman Schultz's office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.)
Representatives at His House declined to say whether they are still housing refugee and migrant children. The company's development director, David Castrillon, referred New Times' questions to the federal Department of Health and Human Services; he also would not allow a New Times reporter inside the building today. A spokesperson for HHS, Kenneth Wolfe, declined to comment.
"For the safety and security of children in the unaccompanied alien children program shelters, we do not identify specific locations of permanent facilities," Wolfe said.
But, as first noted earlier today by Reveal and the Texas Tribune, His House was cited by the federal government itself mere months ago for possibly major violations. The review covered children shuffled through the facility from October 1, 2013, to September 30, 2014.
"We selected for audit His House Children’s Home... because a former employee was convicted of extortion, and we were interested in assessing whether there were other vulnerabilities," the report reads.
According to the 55-page audit, His House "generally met applicable safety standards... for the care and release of children," but documentation wasn't filed correctly, so the government could not confirm 652 children were handled according to federal law. Of the 1,810 children whose cases were audited, about 36 percent had incomplete case files.
Importantly, the ORR said His House could not guarantee it conducted complete background checks on families that agreed to take in migrant kids.
"On the basis of our UAC case file sample results, we estimated that His House did not properly document the care and release of approximately 36 percent of all children released to sponsors in FY 2014," the audit reads.
Auditors also found that His House did not seem to document its spending well and that many of its accounting transactions were "inaccurate" or "delayed." Though His House disagreed with the findings, the shelter agreed to make the changes auditors requested.
But in May 2018, the Miami Herald's Carol Marbin Miller reported state investigators were looking into child-abuse complaints at His House. A court-ordered child-welfare guardian, Evin Daly, had filed a state complaint alleging kids at the facility were treated "like prisoners." They weren't allowed off the property and were served disgusting food. Some staff members were allegedly having sex with one another on duty. His House denied the allegations and said Daly had "misunderstood" the shelter's policies, according to the Herald.
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"We have a behavior modification system in place," His House executive director Silvia Smith-Torres said last month. "We restrict their passes, and they don't like being restricted in their passes."
A New Times reporter visited the site today. At the front entrance, posted next to a sign for His House, was a white A-frame display reading “Welcome” in green letters on a purple background. Beneath it was the image of a happy child holding a potted plant.
The federal government declined to say whether the facility is still housing kids, but during an hourlong visit, about ten vans entered and exited His House. Most of the vehicles leaving carried teenagers. At least one held a small child. A driver in one of the vans said the kids inside the facility were not refugees. He drove away before providing his name. Another anonymous driver said there were refugee kids inside.
The beige buildings in the compound look faded and grimy. Metal bars cover the windows from ground to awning at the main office and a medical building. Next to His House stands a boarded-up GSA building; on the front lawn, a 15 mph speed limit sign is bent as if it were hit by a car. Many of the benches scattered around the compound look broken. The American flag that flies in front of the fire station, however, looks new.