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Court ruling: VisionQuest can proceed with plans to house 60 undocumented immigrant children in North Philly

VisionQuest’s previous North Philadelphia shelter closed in 2017 after staff members were found to have punched and choked children there.

The entrance to one of the bedrooms at the VisionQuest facility on Old York Road in North Philadelphia. The agency has asked a court to allow it to open quickly and begin accepting undocumented immigrant children.
The entrance to one of the bedrooms at the VisionQuest facility on Old York Road in North Philadelphia. The agency has asked a court to allow it to open quickly and begin accepting undocumented immigrant children.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has ruled that VisionQuest, an Arizona-based youth-services provider, can proceed with its controversial plan to house 60 undocumented immigrant children at a shelter in North Philadelphia.

The agency says it expects the youths to begin arriving here in two weeks.

Allowing VisionQuest to open the facility now — under the equivalent of a preliminary injunction while a larger legal case goes forward — will cause “no adverse impact on or jeopardy of health, safety, or welfare of the employees of VisionQuest or the children placed in the shelter," Judge Paula Patrick wrote in a ruling released late Thursday afternoon.

Kenney administration spokesperson Mike Dunn said, "We disagree with the court’s ruling.... The city is reviewing the decision and will make a decision on how to proceed in the coming days.”

The legal fight centers on a local zoning issue — one that has put Philadelphia, a “sanctuary city,” squarely in the national debate over the treatment of migrant children.

VisionQuest’s previous North Philadelphia shelter closed in 2017 after staff members were found to have punched and choked children. Now, the agency will be paid up to $5.3 million by the federal government to house a rotating population of Spanish-speaking boys, ages 12 to 17, at the same site.

Most of the children fled gang violence and crushing poverty in Central America, and have no parent or legal guardian in this country.

VisionQuest president Mark Contento said that he was “obviously very pleased” by the ruling, and added, “Our objectives are to do right by everybody.”

The reaction from those who oppose the center was immediate and intense.

“VisionQuest was a terrible for-profit provider who failed to meet city standards,” tweeted City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a longtime advocate for children and immigrants. “They should never have been licensed to continue to work with kids. We will not tolerate any abuse of young people.”

She pledged: “We will keep fighting this.”

Miguel Andrade, spokesperson for the immigrant advocacy group Juntos, called the court decision “appalling."

The organization will “continue to mobilize and fight to ensure this center doesn’t open," he said. “We cannot tolerate detention in a sanctuary city.”

The center’s opening had been blocked by a ruling from the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which upheld a Department of Licenses and Inspections finding that a new zoning permit would be required for the intended use of the property. VisionQuest appealed to Common Pleas Court.

During 90 minutes of proceedings in a City Hall courtroom on May 23, the agency pressed its case for a stay of enforcement that would allow the center to accept children while its appeal proceeded. The city filed a motion to quash, which would have kept the center from opening, at least in the short term.

Assistant City Solicitor William Fernandez argued that zoning and occupancy regulations for the property, lat 5201 Old York Rd. in Logan, did not permit the housing of children who are under the jurisdiction of a court. And the migrant kids, many of them facing deportation or seeking asylum, were plainly under the jurisdiction of the federal immigration court, he said.

But Patrick punched a hole in the city’s argument.

From 2010 to 2017 at the same building, she pointed out, VisionQuest operated its residential program for troubled youths who were all under court jurisdiction, placed in the program by judicial order.

“It was the same thing,” the judge said, “except they were not alien children.”

Fernandez responded that such use of the property was unauthorized. Just because VisionQuest operated in violation then does not mean it should do so now, he said.

But, the judge answered, the city never objected to that use at the time.

“There’s no new use,” she said. “There’s just new clients.”

The only person to testify during the hearing was Contento. He said the agency was ready to offer clean, safe, and comfortable housing to immigrant children who otherwise might be held near the border, sleeping on the ground in federal centers or local gyms.

VisionQuest, which operates in six states, runs a similar program for about 60 unaccompanied minors in Arizona, he said. The company would suffer financially if the Philadelphia center failed to open, and the 60 employees it has hired would be laid off, he testified.

The judge expressed doubts about the city’s motivation in the case, suggesting that some information was being held back.

“I’m waiting to hear the real reason the city is objecting to this,” she said. “I really want to know the real reason.”

In her ruling, the judge said that VisionQuest made a strong case for the likelihood of its ultimate success in court. She deemed the city’s interpretation of the zoning regulations “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary” to the actual code, and said she would seek to quickly move forward with appeal briefs and oral arguments.

VisionQuest, its employees, and the children themselves would be “irreparably harmed” by delay in reaching a final legal resolution, but there would be no public harm in allowing the property to be occupied in the meantime, she wrote.

The judge appointed attorney Paul P. Panepinto as special master in the case, responsible for overseeing the transition of children into the facility and for monitoring the center “to ensure the highest quality of care of the youth.”

Dunn said, “The city stands by our contention that VisionQuest’s proposed use of 5210 Old York Rd. is disallowed under its 2010 zoning permit, a position upheld by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.”

In the sanctuary city of Philadelphia, the fight to keep VisionQuest from reopening has been joined by City Council members, union leaders, immigrant advocates, and Logan residents. Opponents say the city should never allow immigrant children to be confined within its borders, and particularly not by VisionQuest.

The Inquirer earlier reported that at least three VisionQuest employees had been fired between 2011 and 2017 for striking or physically handling children.

VisionQuest leaders say they will capably provide education, medical services, and recreation, as required by law, and move quickly to place children with family members or foster-family sponsors.

The $5.3 million would flow to VisionQuest as part of a three-year agreement with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), government records show. That’s a fraction of the total taxpayer dollars — more than $1.5 billion last year — spent to house and supervise children who have arrived alone at the nation’s southern border, the unaccompanied minors at the heart of what has become a national debate.

From October to April, the first seven months of fiscal year 2019, a total of 44,779 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That’s compared with 50,036 in all of fiscal 2018, and 41,435 in 2017.