Officials face deadline to move 1,500 children from "tent city"

By Graham Kates

/ CBS News

Inside tent city in Tornillo, Texas

About 1,500 children remain detained at a "tent city" for unaccompanied minors that officials say will be closed this month. The facility near the Tornillo Port of Entry in Texas is the largest holding facility for unaccompanied minors. At its height in late 2018, approximately 2,800 children were housed in rows of bunk bed-lined tents.

The operation expanded rapidly after it was opened in June 2018, initially with space to hold 400 children for 30 days. But month after month, the contract with the site's nonprofit operator, BCFS, was extended, until a BCFS representative announced on Dec. 24 that it would not agree to any more extensions.

The facility is currently funded through Jan. 31, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has confirmed it plans to send every child detained in Tornillo to either a sponsor — a relative living in the U.S. — or a permanent shelter.

HHS also announced it would be adding 1,000 beds to a similar facility in Homestead, Fla. The Homestead facility, located adjacent to an Air Force Base in Florida's Miami-Dade County, was near full capacity with 1,300 children as of Jan. 2. Ultimately, it will expand to fit 2,350, HHS said, meaning it will be the largest unaccompanied minor shelter in operation.

HHS told CBS News it does not intend to transfer children from Tornillo to Homestead.

The Homestead shelter is operated by a for-profit company named Comprehensive Health Services. Its parent corporation, Caliburn, announced in an Oct. 19 SEC filing that it intends to raise $100 million in an IPO. The company declined to speak with CBS News about the rapid addition of 1,000 beds, and associated staffing increases. The representative also said that due to SEC quiet period restrictions preceding IPOs, the company cannot comment on its filings.

In its draft SEC registration, the company noted that its operation of Homestead represents a potential risk to investors.

"In the past, we have received negative publicity for this work with (HHS), and it is possible that we may be subject to such negative publicity in the future as well," the company wrote. "Allegations of impropriety or reports mischaracterizing our activities or criticism of the missions that we are supporting have the potential to cause us reputational harm, which could harm our business and our relationships with suppliers, customers and investors. Any of these could adversely impact our share price."

In June,CBS News reported that Tornillo and Homestead, because they are on federal land, are not subject to child welfare inspections required for state facilities.

And HHS' Inspector General determined that staff caring for the children at Tornillo had not undergone FBI fingerprint checks. At the Homestead facility, the inspector general found staff weren't screened for child abuse and neglect.

First published on January 4, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Graham Kates

Graham Kates is an investigative reporter covering criminal justice, privacy issues and information security for CBSNews.com.

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