Observations of the St.Paul’s College “Project” DHHS and Homeland Security

How Not to Design and Implement Residential Care for Unaccompanied Children

By Louis S. Seyler, LCSW (ret)

We have to understand there is a real humanitarian crisis involving tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America who have washed up on our shores driven by hope of safety, rescue, and some to reunite with parents here. It coincides with the United States Congress never having gotten around to immigration reform since the Reagan administration and the world-wide recession increasing the amount of poverty among neighbors to the South.

There has been funding called for of $2 billion to assuage the immigration crisis at the border. Just like emergency funding for Katrina, there is money to be spent in a hurry intended to help resolve the crisis. There are contractors and agencies eager to pounce on that money like flies on cowshit. A division of a branch of a twig of the Department of Health and Human Services has been earnestly scrambling to come to grips with the crisis in typical Top-Down problem solving. The problem at the border (finally revealed in the pictures of caged children by the press) was jumped-on by DHHS staff in Washington to look for suitable housing for 500 Latino children of the thousands to come. DHHS connected to the regional office in Philadelphia who heard there might be an opportunity at a defunct college to lease their facilities in a poor county in Virginia. So Lawrenceville, VA, suddenly had Homeland Security Police SUV’s and other “suits” in high level talks with the college president to lease the campus of St. Paul’s College.

Among those evaluating the facilities were a Security Team who would design a highly secure fencing arrangement to encapsulate the previously open campus of more than 600 acres on the edge of town. Having built a 17 foot fence from Tijuana to the Rio Grande, the United States gov’t should be experts by now in how to build secure fences. From the townfolks point of view, this fence could not be high enough to calm their fears of escapee’s bringing a crime wave or epidemics of tropical disease to their peaceful town. Security fences would have been just the first of many Federal Contracts let out to improve the facilities. Of course, the children were to start arriving within a week, which did not give much time for renovations.

Somewhere in Philadelphia, those planning for 500 stressed, refuge children from the third world thought of the staffing that would be required by the 24 hour care housing arrangements. Notice that when any organization tries to emulate what is the most basic method of care for children, the human family, costs skyrocket. Which is cheaper, raising a child at home and going to public school or sending them off to boarding school? Which is cheaper, having a child recover from an illness at home with chicken soup or putting them in a pediatric ward with nurses, doctors, aides, housekeeping, security, maintenance, X-ray and CAT scan hardware, laundry, pharmacists, social workers, hospital administrators and the marketing department they must have? This is a no-brainer for those not in government but not for the planners at HHS.

So the next step was to envision a staffing plan from a town of 1,213 (that has no motel within 20 miles) in the third poorest county of Virginia. It’s usually so quiet you’d think it was Mayberry. One selling point the folks in Philadelphia believed was this would open up 400 jobs in the community. Now HHS has experience doing such centers in Houston, New York, Chicago and California, but they haven’t tried to find skilled, bi-lingual employees in Lawrenceville. Their initial projected staffing for a 5 month lease of the facility was to include 4 child psychiatrists, 20 registered nurses, trained bi-lingual psychologists and social workers to deal with the refugees’s mental health needs, recreation and education specialists, and bilingual staff to help the children feel they are in a culturally familiar setting. Turning a defunct college campus with a beautiful gym, cafeteria, dormitories, armed security patrols and more attention than they have had in their lives is going to make Latino children feel right at home, right? But this is the way things are planned according to policy and procedural manuals in Philadelphia for refugee care. “Trust us, we know what we are doing. We’ve evaluated the situation and can make it work.”

So where would the 100 or so bi-lingual professionals be recruited to fill this temporary but hopefully permanent lease find housing in Lawrenceville? Having lived in Tidewater 35 years, I know of one retired child psychiatrist, one clinical psychologist who’s schedule is full and no social workers other than myself who could converse with a Spanish speaking client. Nationally, I doubt if any Spanish speaking child psychiatrist could be found to work with this Spanish population for only 5 months in a contract job. Finding even one to move to Brunswick county with his family is too much to ask. Psychiatrists marry sophisticated urban women, not down-home women. People here like things slow and quiet like the Meherrin River that lingers through the county.

Not the first time troops have been dispatched from Washington, D.C. to invade Lawrenceville. Gen’l Grant sent cavalry through it in 1864 to destroy Gen’l Lee’s railroad supply routes from the South. The invasion of 2014 from Washington via Philadelphia with Ms Essie Workee in command of troops of DHHS was just about as welome as Yankee troops to this peaceful Southern hamlet.

In the town hall meeting, I sat next to a real estate agent from Brodnax, Va. He was one of the very few in favor of this invasion because he knew it would be good times ahead for him when hundreds of outsiders would seek to move in the county and buy houses. But most of the locals were opposed and had heard stories that these youths were illegal, coming out of violent drug cartel countries, didn’t speak English slow, carried diseases and scabies and might infect everybody in town, especially their daughters, with dreadful things and in a few years the teens would be taking their jobs. What jobs? There wasn’t anybody working in Lawrenceville except farmers and people in the brick factory. Why, its so quiet and law-abiding, they even had to put the local Correctional Unit in mothballs and laid off the correctional staff for lack of business. No one in town locks their doors and even if you’re a stranger you will likely be asked if you can stay for supper. There’s Pino’s for an Italian pizza but the Mexican Restaurant went out of business. Two or three hundred Contract employees and their families moving a town with just one Pizza place is going to make young Pino busier than a one-armed pizza tosser. I hope the newbies would be prepared to drive 20 miles for real fast food because there’s none to be had in Lawrenceville.

The point of this essay has been to point out that there are different ways of going about things, even an immigration crisis. There’s the Washington, D.C. approach which takes its training manual for invasions from the Marines and is quickly followed by, in this case, contractors for everything from security fences, surveillance, homeland security personnel, metal detectors, head-hunters for medical and clinical staff, sprinkler systems, laundry systems, food caterers, exterminators, air-conditioners, copy machines and office furniture and paper suppliers and the list goes on. Bureaucrats have to have paper to shuffle. This doesn’t begin to count the medical supplies, recreational equipment, clothing and sneakers for 500 children, school supplies, art supplies, Psychological Testing kits and supplies which Philadelphia knows by now won’t come from WalMart because locals wouldn’t let them open a WalMart in the county. But DHHS believes if they can make it work in Houston, they can make it work in a town of 1,200. Don’t worry about the costs, we have money to spend in your impoverished county. Well, Philadelphia may have thought the folks here were poor and could use a hand-out, but they are tax payers, too and easily recognized that if it weren’t for the broke college for rent, the Federal Government wouldn’t have any interest in them at all. Lawrenceville was going to be used to fix a problem Washington had and is getting worse by the day.

Many local people said, if you’d asked us to help take in some kids, we’d have done it. But this invasion with Washington’s ways and huge projected expenditures of federal tax dollars was in their minds underhanded, foolish, disregarding of their community’s other urgent needs for their own children, and intended to assuage the needs of kids who had no business being in the States to begin with. Many responded to the declarations that our Iraq and Afghan Veterans can’t get medical help for shortages of psychiatrists and counselors, yet they want to bring in all this help for “illegals.”

Washington would never think of the greatest pool, the most loving resource for the raising of children our nation has: its families. No, Washington can only think of large institutions that require buildings, leases, staff, contractors, consultants, professionals, overseers, management, accounting, security. Having worked ten years in different residential centers for children, I know that it takes years to assemble, train, write policy and procedures for an institution for children. Residential care units cannot be created overnight. They are organically developed over time and experience with a supportive community. If we have 60,000 UAC’s coming across the border, Washington plans to divide that into bundles or units of 500 and staff and make room for so many according to their Excel spreadsheets and spread them around the nation in very unlikely places. This is field hospital thinking: battalions, companies, squadrons. FEMA on steroids.

There is a huge risk, because this and other disaster scenes like Katrina, Detroit and NewYork that these children will become pawns in a political jousting match. Already the “ownership” of the refugees is contested between the Border Patrol, FEMA, DHHS, and the cadres of contractual providers of housing and relief services intended for the children and eager to claim their prerogatives to the victims. In essence, these children, without their country’s or parents’ consent, have become colonized subjects in a country that does not really want them, but hopes to avoid embarrassment over their treatment and wishes they would go away quietly. Caring for them with detention institutions across the country is going to be expensive.

The Simpler Solution:

The simpler solution would never occur to Washington or DHHS types who rely on professionals and people who make up policies. The most concise unit of aid, health, love, care, adjustment to life’s pains, and recovery from troubles for Latino children is already available and abundant in the United States. The government could have this skilled care immediately for as long as it took and cut out the buildings, the courts, the psychiatrists, the contractors.

Where is this resource in America? It is the successful Latino families that we have in abundance who are experts in rearing Latino children, loving them, making them responsible, getting them to school and enjoying the benefits of close family life. If the government spent money to support these refugees in homes that understood them and welcomed them as their own with maybe a stipend or a tax break for child care/foster care. It could save all the headaches of organizing whole campaigns and creating residential institutions from scratch. It would achieve all that in the least restrictive environment, a Latino family home. If there were health issues, then a traveling nurse could be utilized. For doctor’s visits, who else but Mom or Dad takes their kids to the doctor. We know how to do foster care in this country even though its resources are spread too thin and there are occasional bad apples, but certifying Latino families sounds like a Win:Win to me. But who in Washington could think of this as a viable solution. Only people who grew up in a small town that would take in a neighbor’s child or a relative’s teen in time of need.

They would also have to think of the unaccompanied children as children. Not as illegals, criminals, offenders, aliens, detainees, invaders, primitives, disease-bearing, gang members, nor as moochers on the American Treasury. Simply children who are stressed, cut off from parents, exhausted from an ordeal of their pilgrimage, frightened to death, missing their homes and the familiar world of Latin-America.


Note on Author: Mr. Seyler retired as a Clinical Social Worker who spent 45 years working with mental health agencies, outpatient practices and residential treatment centers from San Antonio to Portsmouth VA. He has been trained in Child Play Therapy, Family therapy, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. He reared two children of his own. He was once a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Panama and has since made trips to Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Yucatan as a volunteer with mission construction projects. He is fluent in Spanish and enjoys reading Latin-American Novels in Spanish to keep up his skills. Out of his concern for the reception of refugee children, he visited the town of Lawrenceville and sat through a 4 hour civic meeting with DHHS administrators.