Conditions at contractor shelters put migrant kids 'at risk': Watchdog

PHOTO: A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant kids maintained unsafe and unsanitary conditions at multiple facilities, federal inspectors found and detailed in a new report.PlayDepartment of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General
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A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant children kept conditions at multiple facilities that were at times unsafe and unsanitary, federal inspectors found, according to an inspector general report released on Tuesday.

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At two housing centers, children had easy access to keys for the vehicles used by the government contractor. At another, unlocked areas gave the kids access to a pressure washer, a weeding machine and a gas container. Three facilities were found not to have carbon monoxide detectors despite having gas appliances nearby. Unsanitary bathrooms were also found by government inspectors.

PHOTO: A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant kids maintained unsafe and unsanitary conditions at multiple facilities, federal inspectors found and detailed in a new report. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General
A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant kids maintained unsafe and unsanitary conditions at multiple facilities, federal inspectors found and detailed in a new report.

Another disturbing finding: Some of the kids were released to sponsors whose names hadn’t been checked against the sex offender database. In some cases, employees hired to work with the kids were missing evidence of background checks.

In the report, the inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) said it found conditions at facilities caring for undocumented migrant children that were at odds with state regulations.

The government contractor running the facilities, Southwest Key, a nonprofit paid by the U.S. government to care for tens of thousands of children deemed "unaccompanied." These are mostly older children and teens who have recently crossed the border -- oftentimes with an extended relative the government doesn’t recognize as a legal guardian.

"Southwest Key failed to ensure compliance with State requirements, and for some of these conditions, Southwest Key staff did not adequately monitor its facilities during the monthly facility safety check to ensure that the facilities were clean and free from unsafe or harmful conditions," the watchdog wrote.

PHOTO: A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant kids maintained unsafe and unsanitary conditions at multiple facilities, federal inspectors found and detailed in a new report. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General
A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant kids maintained unsafe and unsanitary conditions at multiple facilities, federal inspectors found and detailed in a new report.

"The failure to follow health and safety requirements placed the health and safety of children at risk," the report added.

PHOTO: A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant kids maintained unsafe and unsanitary conditions at multiple facilities, federal inspectors found and detailed in a new report. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General
A non-profit group contracted by the government to house unaccompanied migrant kids maintained unsafe and unsanitary conditions at multiple facilities, federal inspectors found and detailed in a new report.

Southwest Key said it was taking steps to improve its oversight and safeguards at facilities, but told inspectors it, "strongly disagreed with any implication that it put a child at risk or improperly released a child to a sponsor."

In a statement provided to ABC News on Wednesday, Southwest Key said it disagreed with some of the OIG findings, and quickly addressed others. It said in recent months it's embedded "dozens of new quality assurance staff in local regions and increased program leadership on the ground level to ensure we consistently deliver high quality care to all the youth in our shelters."

"It’s important to note this review occurred more than two years ago and is not a reflection of who we are today," the company said in a statement.

The inspections were at facilities in Arizona, Texas and California in 2017, a year when border crossings had decreased and these types of shelters were not overwhelmed. It wasn’t until early 2019 that migration levels rose dramatically, overwhelming the U.S. capacity to care for the kids.

The allegations comes as lawmakers like Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings have blasted the administration’s handling of migrant children and contend the government does a better job tracking objects belonging to undocumented migrants than tracking and caring for children.

"How do you say to a 2-year-old, we can’t find your mother but we can find her keys?" Cummings said last month at a hearing.