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Migrant children facility in Homestead, Florida, to close

U.S. spends millions on a now empty facility for migrant children

After months of widespread criticism, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has decided it will not renew its contract with the corporation that manages a massive holding facility for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead, Florida.

The site has for years been managed during so-called immigration influxes by Comprehensive Health Services, a company now owned by Caliburn International. It drew intense scrutiny and allegations that its treatment of children violated federal court orders in the last year as it rapidly expanded to hold far more children — at its height, a capacity of more than 3,000. In a statement to CBS News, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed it will allow its contract with Caliburn to expire on November 30, and will reduce the facility's capacity to zero. The Miami Herald first reported the agency's plan.

The site's rapid expansion from a capacity of 1,200, began in January. That month, as the company's operator sought to hire thousands of new employees, CBS News observed a steady stream of applicants being hired on the spot at a job fair inside a local Holiday Inn Express hotel. The Homestead site was the country's only facility granted a waiver allowing it to bypass state child welfare background checks, and a July 2018 CBS News investigation found it was one of just two facilities not required to undergo strict state child welfare inspections. By January 2019, the other location, a tent city in Tornillo, Texas, had closed.

The Homestead facility's expansion began several months after Comprehensive Health Services was purchased and folded into Caliburn by DC Capital Partners, an investment firm tied to former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Caliburn's entry into the unaccompanied migrant children housing industry came just before a sudden, unprecedented spike in the number of such children committed to government custody. In conversations with CBS News, federal officials attributed the increase to a series of now-abandoned federal policies implemented in the latter half of 2018.

Kelly resigned from White House on January 2, 2019, and CBS News revealed in May that he had joined Caliburn's Board of Directors.

The revelation sparked widespread outcry and calls for investigation from prominent Democrats, including some who are running for president. 

Weeks later, as two dozen Democratic candidates gathered for a debate in Miami, many visited the Homestead facility, about a half-hour drive south. Amid media scrums, as activists who had for months protested outside looked on, one by one the candidates stood on a footstool to peer over a tall, covered fence at children in the facility's outdoor recreation area.

Some cited testimonials from children within the facility that had recently been filed in federal court. In the months after Homestead began its expansion, lawyers involved with upholding the landmark Flores Agreement, which in 1997 set federal standards for the treatment of unaccompanied migrant children in government custody, set about interviewing hundreds of children housed in the facility.  

In the more than 600-page filing, children recounted their fear, sadness, confusion and anxiety; their stories included accusations that staff falsely claimed that violations of basic rules like time limits on showering and a ban on touching could harm their immigration cases. One described witnessing depressed children "cutting themselves." The lawyers argued the children were "harmed by lengthy detention at Homestead," where they were subject to "prison-like" rules.

As summer hit, the number of families and unaccompanied migrant children seeking to cross the border declined amid soaring desert temperatures — an annual decrease that immigration authorities have come to expect. By August 3, the Homestead facility was empty of children, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which oversees the site.

However, on September 18, ORR Director Jonathan Hayes testified to a House of Representatives panel that his agency continued to spend roughly $720,000 per day at the site, maintaining 1,200 empty beds and the staff to support hundreds of children.

The revelation sparked a new round of calls to shutter the facility.

The last Caliburn staff will leave the Homestead facility in the next week, but the site will remain in "warm status," according to HHS, meaning the site could be reopened in the event of a future influx.

In a statement to CBS News, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, criticized the decision to keep the facility in "warm status."

"Homestead needs to be shutdown, not put on 'warm status' in perpetuity. 'Warm status' means taxpayers will still be paying millions of dollars to keep Homestead open while it is completely empty. Children should never have been put into unlicensed influx facilities like Homestead in the first place," said DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut. "We should never go back to allowing children to languish in warehouse-like conditions for months on end. Instead, the Office of Refugee Resettlement needs to work to fulfill its mission of safely and expeditiously placing children into sponsors' care. To that end, ORR should focus its effort on adequate placement in state-licensed facilities with proper standards of care."

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