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Texas eased rules for housing immigrant children

August 5, 2014

McALLEN, Texas (AP) — The state of Texas has relaxed its standards for the shelters housing thousands of Central American children who crossed the border alone, in order to provide housing for as many migrant children as possible.

Even with the changes allowing more children to be housed in the shelters around Texas, they are a world away from the crowded conditions in the U.S. Border Patrol station holding cells where children were held for days for processing. At the shelters, children take classes, receive hot meals and can play.

More than 57,000 children, most from Central America, entered the U.S. illegally between October and June without a parent or guardian. That was more than double the number who arrived over the same period a year earlier.

Kyle Janek, executive commissioner of Texas Health and Human Services, instructed the state body that licenses shelters to work out solutions to allow more capacity.

“Because of the large numbers we were seeing in a short period of time,” Janek said, he directed the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to lower shelter standards to the same level as after a hurricane. He made the remarks late last month in testimony to a legislative committee.

The regulatory changes reduced the area required for each child and allowed more children to be housed per available toilet, sink and shower. Some shelters proposed having additional kids sleep on cots — an idea that was approved. A suggestion to give them air mattresses was denied, according to shelter documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request.

Requests for rule exceptions, called variances, are evaluated for hygiene concerns and the potential risk for the spread of diseases such as chicken pox and tuberculosis, as well as “maintaining appropriate supervision ratios,” Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said in an email.

At the end of July, nine Texas shelters were operating with variances that allowed additional capacity, Crimmins said.

“This is obviously not business as usual. If a provider steps up and wants to try and shelter more children, we will help make that happen,” he said.

Once children are processed by the Border Patrol, they are placed in the custody of the government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. They stay at federal government shelters until they reunite with family members in the U.S. or move to longer-term foster care to await their day in immigration court.

After hovering around 6,000 or 7,000 for several years, the number of children in the federal shelters doubled in 2012 and doubled again in 2013, before surging higher still this year.

The agency responded by increasing the number of available beds in its shelter network — from 3,300 in 2012 to 5,000 in 2013. With the addition of three temporary shelters, that number rose this year to more than 7,000.

At the end of July, the shelter caseload was down to about 6,300 children in 100 permanent facilities and three large temporary shelters on military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California. The caseload had been more than 7,600 in mid-June.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that it was suspending operations at three temporary shelters in coming weeks because the number of children crossing the border has declined and because the agency had “expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters.”

For other variances that loosened state standards requiring one sink, toilet and shower for every eight children, the state required shelters to make a schedule to ensure that every child had sufficient time for personal hygiene.

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