Probation chief recommends ending contract housing refugee minors at juvenile hall


From The Davis Enterprise

Yolo County’s chief probation officer is recommending that the county end its agreement with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement to house unaccompanied refugee minors at the county’s juvenile detention center.

The Board of Supervisors will consider terminating the contract at its meeting on Tuesday.

Since 2008, the county has provided beds for up to 24 undocumented youths who have been deemed a danger to themselves or others or have been charged with or convicted of a crime.

But the program — and the county by extension — came under harsh criticism last year over the case of a 14-year-old Honduran boy who had been housed at the Woodland facility.

The boy — identified in media reports by the initials G.E. — was apprehended in 2016 trying to enter the United States alone at a Texas border crossing.

He was placed in Yolo County’s juvenile detention facility as his attorneys worked on an asylum case on his behalf that documented severe abuse by his parents and caregivers in Honduras. He was officially granted asylum in the United States in January 2017.

However, the boy remained at the detention center and was released in March only following media coverage and public outcry.

Under the terms of the contract between Yolo County and the ORR, unaccompanied minors like G.E. may only be housed in the secure facility in Woodland if they meet specific criteria; namely, that they have been deemed a danger to themselves or others or have been charged with or convicted of a crime.

G.E.’s attorneys with Legal Services for Children in San Francisco and the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic argued that none of those criteria applied in his case.

As outrage grew over G.E.’s continued incarceration, Yolo County officials requested permission from ORR to take custody of the boy and assume responsibility for his placement and care.

The federal and state governments quickly relinquished any responsibility for the boy and Yolo County’s Child Welfare Services took custody, placing him in a local Spanish-speaking foster home last year.

Chief Probation Officer Brent Cardall later told the Board of Supervisors that in G.E.’s case, ORR dropped the ball and Cardall said he was prepared to recommend that the county terminate its contract with the agency.

However, after meeting with ORR representatives and receiving written agreements that would satisfy the county going forward, he recommended that the board approve the contract renewal, which it voted to do so in May.

Then in August, the county — and Cardall — were named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union accusing the ORR of using unsubstantiated gang allegations to place youths in Yolo County’s juvenile detention facility, as well as one other secure facility the federal government uses to house unaccompanied minors.

Now Cardall is recommending the county terminate the ORR contract altogether.

The contract funds 23 county positions so termination will result in layoffs of both civil and sworn positions in the probation department. For that reason, “this recommendation is not made lightly,” according to county staff, which provided the following reasons for ending the contract:

* Often, ORR youths placed in Yolo County have been subject to significant trauma, community violence and marginalization before they come here. They exhibit a high rate of challenging behaviors, increased mental illness, and at times, physical aggression that has resulted in staff injuries from assaults by ORR youths. In order to address these serious behaviors, increased staffing would be needed. Over the 2016 and 2017 years, the county’s data has shown that ORR youths are three times more likely to assault staff than non-ORR youths.

* Institutions in general experience issues with overtime and excessive sick-time usage. Currently, there is a significant amount of leave time used which contributes to staffing shortages and overtime.

* Undocumented children placed in the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility through the ORR program who commit crimes while at the JDF can be criminally charged. This creates the potential for the youths to fall under the jurisdiction of local probation supervision, and creates placement issues and unfunded costs for the county.

* Recent events related to ORR issues (since early 2017) have required substantial county counsel involvement; this results in an opportunity cost in addressing other county business given the limited resources of that office.

* Having the ORR contract subjects the county to meet federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) staffing requirements above the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) standards, and comes with significant documentation requirements for the federal government.

* Evolving legislation may impact Yolo County if this contract continues. New laws such as Senate Bill 54, the Sanctuary State law, or Senate Bill 29 prohibiting localities in California from entering into, or expanding immigration housing contracts with the federal government, are recent examples of this. Although currently, neither of these directly apply to this specific contract, the spirit of new legislation indicates a state-wide movement to separate local government from federal immigration issues.

Cardall on Tuesday will ask the Board of Supervisors to terminate the contract while retaining staffing and operations support for up to 15 Yolo County Superior Court detained minors.

Services those youths receive include a full educational program provided by the Yolo County Office of Education as well as on-site medical, dental and mental health services; weekly therapeutic services with community-based organizations including CommuniCare, Phoenix House and Victor Community Support Services; as well as numerous volunteer support programs, including those provided by the Yolo Arts Council, the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network and more.

According to a 2017 Probation Department report, the average stay of unaccompanied minors at the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center was 62 days, with more than 600 youths having been in custody there since the contract began in 2008.

More children come from Honduras than from any other country, followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and China.

Of the 578 youths released from the facility between 2008 and October 2016, 277 were placed in group homes throughout the country; 171 were repatriated or deported to their country of origin (repatriation comes at the youth’s request with a judge’s consent; deportation is by a judge’s order); and 120 were reunified with an approved sponsor in the United States (92 percent of them were released to a parent).

Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting begins at 9 a.m. in the board chambers at 625 Court St. in Woodland.

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy