The minimum: Care standards for all vulnerable youth must be equalized

Written by Aja Gair

A young female-identified person hugs another person. The photo is in black and white. 324 pages. Staff at the SAFE Children’s Shelter must follow 324 pages of “minimum standards” in order to contract with the state and provide residential services to youth in foster care. 4,767 minimum standards that, as the Licensed Childcare Administrator for our facility, I must know, follow, and be accountable for while providing care to some of the most vulnerable young people in the state of Texas.

And yet, some facilities in Texas – also working with extremely vulnerable populations of children – are not required to follow these standards. Organizations housing refugee children, all traumatized and many of whom have been forcibly taken from their parents, are not required to comply with these standards and see not following the background check requirements as “a very small, minor thing.” The state of Texas has an 11-page guidance document for providers on background checks alone, which SAFE must and wants to follow.

Acknowledging racial inequalities in who is likely to be flagged during these checks, we have a thorough risk assessment at our disposal, which we work with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to use when warranted. Recently in an in-depth New York Times investigation, we learned that Southwest Key, one of the agencies providing shelter for refugee children in Texas and headquartered here in Austin, is allowed to operate with very different  standards of care.

Unlike SAFE, many organizations housing refugee children are funded by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and receive somewhere between $256 to $316 per day, per child. Unlike the trauma-informed services offered here at SAFE, shelters like those operated by Southwest Key and others are detaining children from infancy to age 17, yet they are exempt from meeting the same standards of care that other residential providers in Texas are held to.

To put this in perspective, for the robust services like those at SAFE, DFPS reimburses emergency shelters at a rate of $129.53 per day. While this is a fraction of what it costs to provide the standard of care that we are committed to, the point is not the money. The point, instead, is that children’s detention centers are being allowed to operate with only the most minimal standards of care and make a profit off of the backs of innocent immigrant children.

While we can agree or disagree with policies that result in children being removed from their families, they are still babies and children who deserve our care. And whether these babies and children are in converted Walmarts, or foster care, at the SAFE Children’s Shelter, or in tents – they deserve well-trained caregivers and protection from those who might seek to harm them.

These are the minimum standards of human decency that we should all seek to follow and that government funders should require of all facilities like ours.