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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Nonprofit Detention Centers for Migrant Children

Migrant Child

Migrant Child

Joan Harrington

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Joan Harrington is assistant director of social sector ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Views are her own.

More than 14,000 migrant children are currently being held in detention by the government.  Most of these children came to the United States unaccompanied, and some were separated from their families.

The government has largely outsourced the responsibility for housing and caring for both child and adult migrants.  Adults are generally housed at detention centers run by for-profit prison corporations and children are housed by nonprofit organizations.

Migrant children have been housed in nonprofit facilities for many years, but due to the increase in migration and the current administration’s policies, the number of children has grown dramatically.  The increase in the number of children in detention, the prolonged time in detention due in part to administration policies, and reports on the mistreatment of children have raised public concern.  While there has been discussion about inappropriate activities by particular nonprofits, the greater issue of nonprofits in the business of child detention has not received much attention.

Should nonprofits be acting as detention centers for children?

The government has chosen to outsource its responsibility for migrants to private organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit.  Arguably nonprofits, which by definition exist to serve the public interest, are best suited for this work.  Perhaps their charitable missions are better designed to protect children than government or for-profit entities.  But to the extent that the policies of detaining children are contrary to the charitable mission, one might ask whether the nonprofits are capitulating to an unethical system. 

Perhaps as a reflection of the dissonance with their charitable mission, one nonprofit has simply refused to acknowledge that they are involved in detaining children.  Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit housing thousands of migrant children through the southwest, was asked by a reporter about their work with migrant children detainees. A spokesperson for Southwest Key responded: “Southwest Key Programs does not operate detention centers so we do not have detainees in our programs. We are a fully licensed child care program and each of our shelters is regulated by a childcare licensing authority and as well as the Office of Refugee Resettlement and other state and local agencies.”

What services should nonprofits provide for migrant children?

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sets forth services that must be provided by the nonprofits contracted to house migrant children. But charitable and religious organizations are housing these children, and these organizations have missions relating to the well-being of children greater than the work defined by HHS.   Do nonprofits, in furtherance of their charitable missions, have a responsibility to do more for these children?  Do they have an obligation to independently assess what is best for the children and provide it?

Are nonprofits contracting with HHS held to the highest standards of ethics and accountability?

Although HHS works with more than 100 facilities, there are just a few that receive the lion’s share of the funding.  With the rapid inflow of children, the government depends on these organizations for housing, and the government has limited alternatives.  In fact, the government has been forced to use military bases for temporary housing, due to the shortage.  Does the dependence of the government on the nonprofits prevent enforcement of the highest level of ethics and accountability which these nonprofits owe the public? 

The largest recipient of government funds for housing migrant children is Southwest Key Programs, with $1.7 billion in federal grants in the last 10 years, including $626 million in the last year.  There have been multiple reports of questionable behavior by this nonprofit including significantly inflated compensation; questionable dealings with for-profit companies owned by the nonprofit, raising conflict of interest issues; and charges of sexual assault of children by employees.  Is HHS in a position to require the highest standards of ethics and accountability and take action if an organization such as Southwest Key doesn’t measure up?

The ethical issues around nonprofit detention centers for migrant children merit reflection.  And we should ask ourselves the bigger question:  Does the very involvement of these nonprofits allow damaging immigration policies to continue?

Dec 14, 2018

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