Last year, in the wake of a surge of asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America, the United States government held a record 69,550 immigrant children in government facilities. The vast majority of them arrived at the border without parents or guardians, though some were taken from their families during the Trump administration’s brutal family separation campaign. Lawyers, watchdogs, and journalists raised alarms about the multiple traumas faced by these children, including neglect, medical deprivation, and sexual abuse.
Billions of taxpayer dollars have gone to organizations running shelters to house these unaccompanied children, who are required by law to be put in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of being detained near the border. But poor federal oversight and new rules favoring conservative Christian providers mean that children could end up in shelters that actively impose their religious beliefs—and that have troubling records of improper and excessive discipline.
Over the past 15 months, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services has paid more than $87 million in taxpayer-funded grants to Sunny Glen Children’s Home in San Benito, Texas, to build and operate a 380-bed shelter for unaccompanied child migrants. Sunny Glen is a small group foster care home run by the Churches of Christ, a network of autonomous evangelical churches with an estimated 1.4 million congregants in the United States that in many cases teaches strict adherence to the New Testament, particularly with regard to gender roles. With a capacity for 40 children and 2018 revenues of just $2.5 million, Sunny Glen had never before received a federal grant; its total grant money for 2019 and 2020 was the second largest of 13 awards HHS made to organizations that hadn’t previously been funded by the unaccompanied minors residential shelter program.
The new federally funded facility, known as New Day Resiliency Center, is located in a former Walmart in nearby Raymondville, Texas, where the award was greeted with enthusiasm—it was slated to bring 600 new jobs to the economically strapped Rio Grande Valley. (Among those to cash in was Wayne Lowry, the former chair of Sunny Glen’s board of directors and the college roommate of its current executive director, Chase Palmer; his staffing and logistics company, SOG International, was contracted to help run New Day. Lowry did not respond to an interview request.) Immigrant rights advocates in the region, however, were unfamiliar with Sunny Glen, or its troubling track record of citations from state regulators for health and safety “deficiencies.”
A review of the licensing database maintained by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services by Mother Jones and Type Investigations revealed 140 such deficiencies at Sunny Glen since 2016, including 17 after HHS first awarded its federal grant in July 2019. Thirty of Sunny Glen’s 140 citations were rated as high risk. Three of those high-risk deficiencies involved violation of a state standard prohibiting “restraints that obstruct child’s airway.” Four others involved other prohibited physical or corporal punishments, including slapping, shaking, holding down children’s heads, and pushing a child against a wall. In one reported incident from May 2017, video footage “depicted two staff members administering a supine restraint on a youth; one staff on top of child and the other staff was holding down youth’s legs,” with “no caregiver monitoring child’s breathing while the youth’s face was pushed down to the ground by a caregiver’s hand.”
Of the 99 Texas residential facilities licensed by the state to provide multiple services to children in their care, Sunny Glen has the third-highest number of deficiencies over the same period of time. Sunny Glen is one of only eight providers of the 99 that had more than 100 deficiencies; the vast majority—79 of 99—had fewer than 50.
The Sunny Glen grant is particularly troubling given the often traumatic experiences unaccompanied child migrants face on their journeys north. When HHS takes custody of unaccompanied child migrants, it is legally required to place them promptly in the “least restrictive” setting and provide them with proper developmental, medical, mental health, and educational care. These kids first became a national story in 2014, when so many arrived fleeing violence that President Barack Obama called the situation at the border “a humanitarian crisis.” DHS referred as many as 309,790 unaccompanied child migrants to HHS from 2014 through 2019.
In 2016, according to a former Obama administration Health and Human Services official, “we worked really hard to expand the capacity of the provider network” by contracting with smaller child care providers licensed by their state. Based on guidance from child welfare experts, the former Obama official said, HHS concluded “that it was better for kids to be in smaller state licensed facilities than having the federal government scramble to find the right contractor” to open larger facilities each time there was a surge. “It wasn’t ideal for child welfare to have these massive facilities open. It was expensive, and it wasn’t good for kids,” the former official said.
But an explosive recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that HHS has failed to properly vet these smaller state-licensed facilities receiving money to shelter immigrant children under the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. The watchdog report found that during 2018 and 2019, the agency failed to properly monitor whether grantees were complying with state licensing requirements and investigate whether state regulators had cited them—like Texas regulators have cited Sunny Glen—for any performance or compliance issues.
In 2018 and 2019, HHS’s grant announcements stated that applicants must report “any and all documented state licensing allegations/concerns.” But the GAO investigation found that “the announcements do not make clear for what time period any such allegations and concerns should be reported.” As a result, “ORR risks awarding grants to organizations that cannot obtain a state license or that have a history of poor performance.” In fact, the GAO report found that out of 58 such grant applications that HHS approved in 2018 and 2019, 43 did “not include information about state licensing allegations or concerns.” It is not clear whether GAO reviewed Sunny Glen’s grant; a GAO spokesperson declined to disclose whether the agency had reviewed it and referred a request for documents relating to Sunny Glen to HHS, which declined to provide them.
The GAO report, said Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the chair of the House subcommittee that oversees HHS funding, “outlines much of what we predicted and feared: federal taxpayer dollars are at risk of being granted to facilities that compromise the safety and well-being of children. We have seen the conditions many children face in these facilities and are committed to ensuring they are treated with the utmost care and compassion.” DeLauro cited other ORR facilities she had visited, where she found “kids under guard,” with “no freedom of movement,” poor medical and mental health care, and substandard educational curricula.
Asked for comment on the GAO report, an HHS spokesperson wrote in an email, “Safety remains a top priority in the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR is committed to improving the safety of our program and, as such, concurred with the GAO recommendations.” The spokesperson also wrote that ORR provides services for unaccompanied immigrant minors through grants to organizations that “have demonstrated child welfare, social service, or related experience and are appropriately licensed to provide care and associated services to dependent children,” and that each application “is reviewed by independent panels that base their review” on the criteria in the request for proposal. The panel review for Sunny Glen, the HHS spokesperson added, is not publicly available.
Mark Greenberg, the director of the Human Services Initiative at the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan Washington think tank, and a former top official in HHS’s Administration for Children and Families under Obama, said of the GAO report, “It’s clear that ORR needs to revamp this process. It’s crucial that the agency should have a good picture of a provider’s performance and be aware of deficiencies before deciding whether to award a grant.” And, he added, “when information about deficiencies is readily available from a state’s website, it surely makes sense to look at it and use it.”
The grant to Sunny Glen are also part of a pattern of preferential treatment for conservative Christians and the continued reversal of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people by the Trump administration. Under President Obama, federally funded, faith-based social service providers were required to provide written notice to the people they serve so that, if they objected to the provider’s religious nature, they could opt to receive services elsewhere. But in 2018, President Trump signed an executive order reversing those rules. “While Trump said he took these actions in the name of religious liberty,” wrote Melissa Rogers, the former executive director of Obama’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership, “he actually dealt religious freedom a blow.”
Trump’s HHS has taken several other steps to expand the ability of federally funded religious organizations to impose their beliefs on the people they serve or to deny service to people based on their religion. Those have included a proposed 2019 regulation to relieve grantees from having to comply with certain nondiscrimination requirements—thus permitting federally-funded grantees to discriminate against the people they serve based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious beliefs.
Trump’s HHS has also rolled back other Obama-era policies specifically protecting LGBTQ minors in foster care. In 2011, the Obama HHS issued an “information memorandum” stating that these kids “may have specialized needs that relate specifically to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” According to HHS’s own research, in 2014, there were one and a half to two times as many LGBTQ youth living in foster care versus in the general population, and that they experienced more mistreatment, hospitalization, and homelessness than their non-LGBTQ peers
As a result, in 2016, the Obama administration started requiring data collection on sexual orientation in order “to help meet the needs of LGBTQ youth in foster care.” The data, a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups says, “is critical to understanding how LGBTQ youth experience the child welfare system and how states can best ensure their safety, permanency, and well-being.” The Trump administration eliminated this requirement.
The Churches of Christ have made clear their position on LGBTQ issues; in 2017, when Texas passed a law allowing foster and adoption care agencies to discriminate based on religion, Churches of Christ-affiliated adoption and foster care agencies celebrated. Chase Palmer, the Sunny Glen executive director and a Churches of Christ evangelist, said in a June 2018 sermon that marriage has been “under attack” by the government and the courts. “The government can recognize whatever the government chooses to recognize as a marriage or a union between two people—that does not mean that God ordains those things.” Satan, he said, “seeks nothing but to destroy what God brings together.”
Palmer declined to be interviewed for this story, saying HHS requires reporters to get permission from its media office in order for him to speak about the grant. In response to a request for permission to interview Palmer, the HHS media office replied only to point to a database of the agency’s funding awards.
In an April 2019 presentation at the Church of Christ in College Park, Texas, Palmer said, “What we strive to do [at Sunny Glen] is take children who were not afforded what God designed for them to have. They don’t have a loving mother that’s submissive to the leadership of a husband in the home.” To provide for the children, many of whom come from abusive situations, Palmer said, “our desire is to inject and expose these children, who come from very dark places of past, to the light—and not the light of good people who love him—but the light of Jesus Christ.”
In the June 2018 sermon titled “I Want to Know More About God’s Design for My Family,” Palmer admitted that he spanks his own children. “Josiah, when he was 2, 3, 4, 5, it seemed like I spanked him every week. But now that he’s 11, I couldn’t tell you the last time I had to spank him,” Palmer said. He went on to lament “the lack of men who are willing to be leaders in their homes,” and that “not having a strong male influence in a child’s life is a great contributor to future problems in life for those children.”
The administration’s Christian right allies have applauded HHS’s actions, claiming that requiring taxpayer-funded organizations like Sunny Glen to comply with laws prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people violates their religious freedom. A coalition of Christian right organizations close to the White House, including Alliance Defending Freedom, Family Research Council, Heritage Foundation, and Concerned Women for America, launched a website promoting the Trump rollback of the non-discrimination rules, calling it the “Keep Kids First Rule.” They argued, “the First Amendment allows these providers to operate according to their beliefs without fear of government punishment.” Concerned Women for America told supporters in an email that Obama had “added rules to HHS nondiscrimination laws that require grant recipients to accept unorthodox, ideological views on gender and sexuality. The result has sidelined faith-based providers, subjected them to lawsuits, and disqualified them from serving families and children.” Shannon Royce, the current director of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at HHS, even urged faith-based organizations to request religious accommodations from HHS in a 2018 panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation.
Congressional Republicans similarly have attacked nondiscrimination rules as infringements on Christians’ religious freedom. At a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in late February, at which Democrats decried the misuse of religion to discriminate against LGBTQ people, lawmakers heard heart-wrenching testimony from their own colleague, New York Democrat Sean Maloney, about his experiences adopting children with his husband. A man named Ernesto Olivares, now 29, told them about his experiences in the Texas foster care system, describing how “hurtful” it was to go to a church where he had to hear “that I would go to hell for being gay and that I wasn’t normal.” Rep. James Comer, a Kentucky Republican, nonetheless insisted that faith-based organizations need “freedom from government coercion.” He claimed, “Many Americans have concerns about how this has swung out of proportion” into “mandating acceptance of an ideology.” He cited a visit he paid to New Pathways for Children—a foster care home in his district that, like Sunny Glen, is run by the Churches of Christ—where “children are encouraged to explore faith” through “biblical study, retreats, camps, and mission trips.”
Under Trump administration rules, Sunny Glen could impose its religious views—on gender roles, on punishment, and more—on the children housed at New Day. “Vulnerable children relying on the government for safe shelter should never be forced to pray, participate in religious activities, or believe in a faith that is not their own,” said Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “That is religious freedom as promised by our Constitution, and the government has a responsibility to make that clear to any agency seeking taxpayer money to provide services.”
For now, with the border closed due to COVID-19, HHS says just 30 children are housed at New Day. But the grant requires the government to continue paying Sunny Glen to maintain staffing should a surge once again create an urgent need to shelter unaccompanied minors. “It essentially comes down to a per day rate,” said the former Obama administration official—and if the rate were $200-$250 per day for hundreds of beds, “you get to $87 million pretty quickly.”