Employees Fear Spread of Coronavirus in San Diego's Migrant Youth Shelters

Employees of the nonprofit contracted to house migrant youth in San Diego County say they don’t have sufficient protective gear, including masks and gloves, and already have a number of children in isolation who are exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.

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On most days in downtown San Diego, the random sound of car horns would be expected. But on Tuesday, a symphony of horns echoed through the streets, this time, with a purpose.  

While most San Diegans were obeying the county’s stay-at-home order, leaving downtown streets nearly deserted, a parade of vehicles drove down Broadway, protesting the federal government’s incarceration of migrants during the coronavirus pandemic.  

Signs on the cars read, “Free them all!” and “Governors: Empty Detention Facilities Before COVID-19 Turns Them Into Death Camps!”

Video of the protest posted online shows drivers shouting out their windows and sounding their car horns.

While that protest played out, fears were mounting about the possible spread of COVID-19 inside three migrant youth shelters in east San Diego County. 

Employees at those youth shelters told NBC 7 Investigates that more must be done to protect their health and the well-being of the children in their care during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Of equal concern: NBC 7 Investigates has learned that local shelters continue to accept more children, despite an order from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement that they temporarily suspend new placements to protect the health and safety of those children and shelter employees. 

As evidence of this, NBC 7 Investigates shot video of a white van leaving the “Casa San Diego” migrant youth shelter on Monday morning, March 30. The video shows the van pulling out of the east county shelter after dropping off a child for intake.


In response to NBC 7’s questions about coronavirus safety precautions taking place in local migrant youth shelters, the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) said all shelters in California, New York and Washington were ordered to stop accepting “unaccompanied alien children or UAC’s” to facilities as of March 9, 2020. 

But after NBC 7 informed ORR about the van that dropped off the child at the Casa San Diego shelter, ORR revised its March 9 statement and acknowledged that some shelters were still accepting children on “limited exceptions.” 

“While a ‘stop placement’ was issued in California on March 9, 2020, there are some limited exceptions such as local referrals from DHS, and transfers internal to the state,” said ORR spokesperson Lydia Holt. 

The three shelters in east San Diego County are not detention facilities. Rather, they are group home shelters managed by Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit agency that contracts with the federal government to house migrant children who are apprehended by border agents while trying to cross the border alone, or whose parents were arrested by immigration officials, leaving them without guardians. 

Case managers at Southwest Key house those children and attempt to place them with verified relatives, or sponsors in this country. 

The minors held in these shelters are ages 6 to 17. According to its state license, the Casa San Diego shelter can house up to 15 children. Casa El Cajon is licensed for up to 65 children, while Casa Lemon Grove has a maximum capacity of 10 children.  

To see the locations of the local shelters, click here or look below.

But employees working for the local shelters say they fear the coronavirus could be spreading inside the shelters. They’re also concerned that they, and the children, might spread the virus as they come and go from the shelters.

The employees spoke with NBC 7 Investigates on the condition we not use their names and not disclose specifically where they work, because they are not authorized to talk to the media and fear retaliation from their employer for speaking out.

Some of those employees shared with NBC 7 screenshots of their communications with their bosses about their coronavirus concerns and the health and safety of staff and the migrant children.

Those employees also said they don’t have sufficient protective gear, including masks and gloves, haven’t received guidance on proper common room ventilation, and can’t safely quarantine children who are showing symptoms of the coronavirus because there’s not enough space in the shelters.

The employees said currently, in the Casa El Cajon shelter, they have three children who are in isolation after showing coronavirus symptoms but that employees weren’t given masks or safety gear when entering the room to treat them. 

A spokesman for Southwest Key Programs pushed back against those allegations. 

“We are doing all we can to keep everyone healthy and safe while continuing to operate and provide compassionate care to hundreds of children and youth,” spokesman Neil Nowlin said via email. “We are following strict screening, isolation and quarantine protocols provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Centers for Disease Control.”

“Anyone who works in our shelters and has presented potential symptoms of COVID-19 has been sent home to self-quarantine for two weeks with pay,” Nowlin’s statement continues. “We have transitioned many positions to remote work, allowing us to decrease employee headcount in our shelters. 

Nowlin said the nonprofit is working around the clock to secure protective equipment for staff, and the nonprofit anticipated issuing more masks and gloves by the end of the week. 

“This is an unprecedented crisis in which even medical professionals and first responders are struggling to source adequate personal protective equipment,” Nowlin said by email. 

Nowlin also addressed claims that staff at Southwest Key Programs were told not to bring protective gear from home. 

“The virus is now in community transmission, so we must also focus on reducing cross-contamination. We’ve asked staff not to bring outside materials, so we can slow the contagion and minimize secondary exposures,” Nowlin said.

To read the full statement from Southwest Key Programs, click here.  

In response to health and safety concerns raised by employees, the ORR spokeswoman said the agency considers safety a “top priority.” 

“We will not comment on anonymous allegations,” Holt said. “Shelter employees frequently receive supervisory guidance, and ORR is in regular contact with grantees (shelters,) providing updates and answering questions regarding operational procedures in the field.”

Getty Images
Social worker Patricio Larco walks with a young Honduran child at a former Southwest Key facility on January 27, 2005. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Relocation During The Coronavirus Pandemic

While local shelter employees are voicing their concerns about the contagion, legal advocates are asking the courts to order the relocation of sheltered migrant youth to sponsors in private housing.

Last weekend, a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered the Trump Administration to explain why it can’t transfer approximately 7,000 migrant children now in the government’s custody in shelters and detention centers across the country to relatives or sponsors’ homes in the U.S.  

The proposal to relocate migrant youth was first outlined in legal filings over litigation stemming from the 1997 Flores Settlement -- a settlement that prompted the federal government to codify immigration detention standards for unaccompanied alien or migrant children, specifically regarding facility conditions and the timing and terms of a child’s release from custody. 

In court filings related to that case, the ORR, along with the CDC, has argued against releasing children to migrant youth sponsors, saying it could lead to a spread of the COVID-19 disease. 

“Moving (unaccompanied migrant) children outside of custody likely increases (the) risk of exposing UAC to COVID-19 relative to remaining in custody, given that they are currently housed in well-controlled environments and may be transferred to areas where there is widespread community transmission, or to homes where there may be persons who have been exposed,” wrote Amanda Cohn, the Chief Medical Officer for the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD.)

But attorneys arguing for the release of migrant youth say the opposite: that keeping children and employees working in these shelters could increase a child's or employee’s chances of contracting the disease, and that the facilities themselves are not equipped to house children during a pandemic.

“We’re talking about children,” said Yliana Johansen-Mendez, the Legal Services Director for the Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles. The law center is not involved with the Flores Settlement legal arguments but is closely monitoring the proceedings.

“Placing a child in isolation is going to be extremely detrimental to that child’s mental well being, and their physical well being. We can’t treat them like prisoners.”

As of March 26, 2020, ORR stated in court that eight program personnel or foster parents at five ORR care-providers programs in New York, Washington, and Texas have self-reported testing positive for COVID-19.

The Casa El Cajon shelter, operated by Southwest Key Programs.

“These are places that by their very design make it nearly impossible to actually practice social distancing the way that the CDC has recommended," Johansen-Mendez said by video conference. 

Pedro Rios, a local migrant advocate with the American Friends Service Committee, agreed with that finding.

“Oftentimes in the shelters, the children live in close quarters, they share rooms, they share restrooms,” said Rios. “So, there isn’t an ability for the shelters or the government to house the children in a way to ensure they are maintaining a distance of six feet.”

While young children were thought to not be of high risk for contracting coronavirus or suffering major health complications, advocates say a lot of the children arriving at the U.S. border already have medical problems that would make them vulnerable to severe COVID-19 reactions.

Legal advocate Johansen-Mendez said the system in place for migrant youth is in a complicated position right now in the U.S.

“We’re seeing the Trump Administration has closed the border...and in the last few days there’s been a huge reduction of the number of (unaccompanied) children who come in at the border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection seems to be apprehending them, then immediately deporting them.” 

“So on the one hand, there are due process concerns for not taking children in, at all, because we’re possibly placing them in danger’s way by not doing so. On the other hand, it’s clear that these facilities are ill-equipped to take care of children in the midst of a pandemic... We’re in a very difficult position right now.”

Southwest Key Programs’ History in San Diego and the U.S.

In December 2018, another group of employees for Southwest Key shelters in San Diego County told NBC 7 they feared the shelters were putting “profits over care” when it came to how long the shelter took to place youth with relatives or sponsors. The employees also alleged sexual assault complaints involving children housed in the shelters were not taken seriously. 

Southwest Key Programs disputed both of these claims, saying the nonprofit’s goal is to reunify children as quickly as possible, so that children can be in a home environment, and that funding has no impact on how quickly a reunification is made.

Southwest Key Programs, which runs shelters across the county, saw an increase in federal funding, but former employees said its resources were sub-par. NBC 7's Melissa Adan has more.

Regarding complaints of sexual assault involving children housed at San Diego shelters, a spokesperson said the nonprofit’s number one priority is to keep the children in their care safe, and that children have access to phones to call 911 at any time they feel unsafe.  

The nonprofit has been pointedly criticized for the generous salaries paid to its key executives, and the amount of money it gets to provide shelter for migrant youth apprehended or taken into the government’s custody.

According to its latest tax filings, Southwest Key Programs received more than $403 million in grant payments from the Department of Health and Human Services in 2018 alone. The nonprofit has received more than $1.2 billion in grants since 2013.

In March 2019, after a report from The New York Times said the nonprofit was being investigated by the Department of Justice for misuse of federal funds, CEO and founder Juan Sanchez announced he would step down.

“Recent events have convinced me that Southwest Key would benefit from a fresh perspective and new leadership,’ Sanchez said in a written statement to the Texas Tribune. “Widespread misunderstanding of our business and unfair criticism of our people has become a distraction our employees do not deserve. It’s time for new beginnings."

Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Texas, the district where the headquarters for Southwest Key Programs is located, would comment on the investigation 

The nonprofit says 95 percent of the children housed by Southwest Key came from “the northern triangle which includes Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.”  

“Most of the children [housed] are males between the ages of 15-17, fleeing violence and gang threats in their home countries,” the nonprofit reported in tax documents. “Others were escaping poverty or seeking reunification with family members already in the U.S.” 

Southwest Key also noted that every child in its shelters is examined by a medical professional within 48 hours of entering the facility, and is screened for infectious diseases.

Advocates say there needs to be widespread testing of children before they enter these facilities, and that isolation is not the answer for children showing symptoms of COVID-19.

“We really have to be doing those medical screenings upfront and not waiting for them to start coughing,” said Yliana Johansen-Mendez by a video conference. “We already know the incubation period for coronavirus is fairly long, and children may not exhibit symptoms at all even though they are potentially infecting the people around them.”

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