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Devereux abandons a plan to house 40 undocumented migrant children in Chester County

The reversal comes in the wake of an Inquirer investigation that detailed how the organization repeatedly failed to protect children in its care from male staffers who sexually abused them.

Protesters block the street leading to a Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health facility in Villanova in October 2019.
Protesters block the street leading to a Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health facility in Villanova in October 2019.Read moreTim Tai / File Photograph

Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health has abandoned its plan to shelter up to 40 undocumented migrant children in Devon, Chester County. The decision comes roughly a year and a half after Devereux secured a $40.2 million federal grant to house and provide services to scores of children in Pennsylvania and four other states.

Devereux also no longer intends to house 12 migrant children at a facility in Rutland, Mass., a spokesperson told The Inquirer. He declined to say what prompted Devereux to shelve its plans there and in Devon.

The reversal comes in the wake of an Inquirer investigation that detailed how the organization repeatedly failed to protect children in its care from male staffers who sexually abused them in incidents that spanned 25 years. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s closure of the nation’s borders in response to the pandemic has drastically curtailed the federal government’s need to house migrant children.

Headquartered in Villanova, Devereux specializes in treating children with intellectual disabilities, mental disorders, and trauma at 15 residential campuses in nine states, making it the nation’s leading nonprofit health organization of its kind. It cares for 5,000 children every year.

Local immigrant-rights advocates, who have vociferously opposed Devereux’s proposal and worked to prevent the Devon site from opening, welcomed the news as a first step.

“The Inquirer reporting made it clear that Devereux has been unwilling and also unable to ensure the safety of youth in their care,” said Zia Kandler, community organizer for Juntos, a Philadelphia-based immigrant rights group. "But this doesn’t change the fact that Devereux already has a grant agreement with the government to provide housing at other facilities. These detention centers are sold as `shelters,' but really they’re detention for children in federal custody.”

Devereux’s decision also comes amid an investigation by the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, which includes Sens. Bob Casey Jr. (D, Pa.) and Pat Toomey (R, Pa.), into why the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) would award millions in public money to residential programs with a poor track record of safeguarding children from sexual abuse. Additionally, the committee is examining whether a lack of ORR oversight can lead to misuses of funds by grant recipients.

ORR, which falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides temporary shelter and care for migrant children — deemed by the federal government as “unaccompanied minors” — who crossed the country’s southern border alone, or were separated there from their parents.

The finance committee began to question ORR’s unaccompanied-minor program in late 2018 after the New York Times and Texas Tribune detailed how Southwest Key, a Texas-based facility that received government money to house migrant children, paid managers and its chief executive excessive salaries and engaged in financial self-dealing. The probe expanded last year after the news website Axios reported that ORR and the Department of Justice had received thousands of complaints of sexual abuse of migrant children in federally funded facilities from October 2014 to July 2018.

The Senate Finance Committee is conducting a bipartisan investigation into how ORR addresses allegations of misconduct at behavioral health facilities receiving federal funding. Last week, Casey’s and Toomey’s offices said the committee’s investigation will now include scrutiny of Devereux, which won its ORR grant last year. It runs from Feb. 1, 2019, to Jan. 1, 2022, according to ORR.

“The reports of abuse and misconduct at Devereux are serious and concerning,” Toomey’s office wrote in a Sept. 22 statement sent to The Inquirer.

In a Sept. 20 letter, Casey urged Christi Grimm, acting inspector general of HHS, to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of child abuse at Devereux, the federal grant, and what ORR is “doing to protect children within their care.”

The now-scrapped plans to house a total of 52 migrant children at facilities in Devon and Massachusetts were key selling points in Devereux’s application for the $40.2 million.

Devereux also proposed to provide 18 residential beds in Colorado, 24 in Connecticut and 64 in Texas, in addition to a foster-care program in New Jersey that would place two dozen children in homes.

In a September 2 email to The Inquirer, however, ORR said Devereux has “less than 10 unaccompanied” children at its residential facility in Victoria, Texas. And Devereux had no migrant children in its care at the Colorado and Connecticut facilities, according to a Sept. 14 email from ORR.

Each year, thousands of migrant children travel to the U.S., often without an adult, fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty in Central America. They are initially detained by the Department of Homeland Security and then handed over to ORR, which must provide shelter until the child can be placed with a relative or a sponsor here while awaiting immigration proceedings.

But the number of migrant children being taken into federal custody — and the demand for shelter beds — has dropped off dramatically since March when the Trump administration shut the border in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, almost 9,000 unaccompanied children have been swiftly expelled back to their home countries, according to Justice Department documents.

Devereux and ORR declined to reveal how many migrant children the nonprofit has housed and provided services to since the grant start date, despite repeated requests from reporters. Devereux and ORR spokespeople also declined to tell The Inquirer how much of the $40.2 million grant has been spent, or drawn down, to date.

Last fall, after news of Devereux’s plan to use its Stone and Gables campus on Highland Avenue in Devon to shelter migrant children became public, The Inquirer reported that Devereux anticipated an initial government payment of $14 million to prepare the Devon location and facilities in the four other states to accommodate migrant children.

ORR awarded the grant partly on Devereux’s claim that it is "uniquely qualified” to detect and prevent sexual assault.

The Inquirer’s investigation, published in August, detailed how 41 children as young as 12 years old, and with IQs as low as 50, were raped or sexually assaulted by Devereux staff members over the last 25 years. Of those, 10 said they were assaulted at Devereux’s local campuses, while the others were abused at facilities in New Jersey, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Connecticut, New York, and Arizona.

Devereux leaders said that in the last two years, they have increased safety and reduced risk by adopting a host of safeguards to prevent such abuse and hold staffers accountable.

In December 2019, just months after Devereux secured the ORR grant, a Devereux staffer in a Texas facility was charged with allegedly sexually abusing four children, including a 16-year-old girl who said he threatened to have her beaten up, and a 12-year-old who said he molested her several times.

And between October 2018 and March 2019, three girls at a Devereux campus in Arizona were sexually abused by a male staffer in their bedrooms and the facility’s laundry room, they told police.

“I don’t know why the hell the Department of Health and Human Services would enter into a [grant] with Devereux in the first place,” Casey said in a recent interview. “That was wrong from the outset.”

Devereux brings in more than $497 million in annual revenues, yet understaffed its campuses and failed to adequately supervise its patients and staff members, The Inquirer investigation found. In an August interview, Devereux executives vigorously denied that campuses currently have issues with staffing or supervision.

Last week, city officials announced they will pull all 53 Philadelphia children out of residential campuses run by Devereux after a six-week safety review found that staffers repeatedly failed to watch over them.

Devereux would not reply to two specific questions: How much grant money had it spent? How many children had been in its care? Instead, Hugh Braithwaite, a Devereux spokesperson, sent a statement:

“As part of our mission to care for the most vulnerable children in our nation, Devereux supports the Office of Refugee Resettlement in their mission to help unaccompanied children. As one of the largest and most advanced behavioral health care nonprofits in the country, our programs are uniquely designed to care for children who have experienced trauma. We provide therapeutic residential and educational services, physical health care including pediatric, dental, and nutritional supports as well as access to immigration attorneys and case management services for every child.”

Braithwaite referred a reporter to ORR, as did Leah Yaw, Devereux’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer. ORR said the amount of funds that Devereux and other grantees have “drawn down" from its payment management system is “not public information.” The agency also said the number of migrant children cared for by Devereux is not available “in a readily reportable format.”

The detention of migrant children has been highly controversial, and the award of millions in public money to Devereux and other organizations shows how the housing of undocumented migrants has become big business in the United States.

Devon residents and immigrant rights groups in the Philadelphia region banded together last fall to fight Devereux’s plans to house migrant children at the vacant Highland Avenue building it already owns.

Residents who live near the property had challenged the shelter’s zoning, to block it from opening, during a heated September 2019 meeting of the Easttown Township Board of Supervisors.

Stephanie McAlaine, a community organizer who lives across the street from what would have been the Devon facility, said she’s “delighted” that Devereux scrapped its plan.

“I don’t think Devereux is properly prepared to care for these children here or anywhere, frankly. And I don’t think children should be held in detention,” she said.

“So this is a win for children.”