Island nonprofit at center of controversy

If the first 25 days of January are any indication, illicit sex and gunfire are common themes in the young life of a Honduran immigrant who came to Galveston under the auspices of an obscure federal program.

The man, 18, was shot at on two occasions and hit once during that time. He was accused once and suspected once again of having sex with underaged girls — one 15 and one 12. The suspicion arose at an island homeless shelter; the accusation sparked gunfire at an island park.

His hosts at the Children’s Center Inc. called the man “George” in interviews. And although he is named in several police incident reports, he has not been charged with a crime. And so he’s called “George” in this article, too, in keeping with the newspaper’s policy of not naming people who have not been charged with crimes.

As far as the public record and the police are concerned, George has been a victim of crime more often than a suspect. All the same, the situations he encountered, whether through bad luck or bad action, raise many questions about how he and other young men like him came to be here, why they remain here, who’s paying for their stay and who’s responsible for monitoring their behavior.

Events during those 25 days in January also raise questions about oversight in a federal program that imports illegal immigrants into communities like Galveston, serves them for a time, and then, apparently, just dumps them onto an underfunded local social-services network.

Simmering Conflict

The violence and suspicion accompanying George has fractured a tightknit community of social workers and made public a conflict among staff members, board members and donors that, by some accounts, threatens to topple The Children’s Center, a private not-for-profit agency with roots back to 1878.

Conflict already was simmering before Jan. 18 when George was alleged to have been in a room at a Children’s Center homeless shelter with a 15-year-old girl. Staff members left the organization over what they called bad management. Others said they were cut under the pretext of layoffs for complaining about the same, according to interviews with a half dozen former employees, most of whom declined to be named.

Meanwhile, the center’s board of directors had for months been divided about how to manage a disagreement with the federal government over $630,000 in grant money, according to emails obtained by The Daily News.

While the claims and allegations swirling around the organization are many and varied, they mostly radiate from the federal program that brought George to Galveston in the first place.

Unaccompanied Children

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement exists to deal with asylum seekers, the “Amerasian” offspring of U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese women, and the victims of human trafficking and torture. Among the programs funded by its $600 million annual budget is one for unaccompanied alien children — illegal immigrants with no parent or legal guardian available in the United States.

Sometimes, the children are caught simply trying to cross the borders illegally. Other times, they’re caught up in raids on illegal workers or sex-trade operations, according to both local social workers and federal officials.

The program gives the children a better place to live than a federal detention center until they are united with relatives or sponsors in this country or removed to their country of origin, according to the resettlement office’s mission statement.

There’s a third possibility, however, and therein lies the trouble.

Galveston Multicultural Institute

George was among 24 children, mostly boys, mostly from Central and South America, who came to Galveston via a Children’s Center program called the Galveston Multicultural Institute. The program is funded through a five-year grant from the resettlement office worth about $3 million a year to the center, according to audit documents.

The program is meant to provide the children food, shelter, clothing, health care and education until they become legal, are deported or turn 18 years old.

Not even the center’s harshest critics have questioned the need for, or the administration of, the center’s program for unaccompanied minors.

But many people said problems have arisen around immigrants brought to Galveston as minors who then became 18 and “aged out” of the federal program.

‘Aging Out’

No one in the federal government seems to know, or wants to talk about, what’s supposed to happen when immigrants held in the unaccompanied minor program turn 18.

Maureen Dunn, director of Unaccompanied Children’s Services for the resettlement office, said her division had no jurisdiction over adults. She said to ask U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which said to ask U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which said to ask Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

What’s clear is that 10 of the 24 children who came to Galveston because of the program and have aged out and are still in the city.

Greg Palmore, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said three of the young men living in Galveston, whose names were gleaned from police reports listing them as victims, were subjects of immigration proceedings, and so, were in the country legally.

But even Palmore could not say what federal agency had custody of the young men or who was supposed to feed, shelter and clothe them.

“It could be that they’re in nobody’s custody,” he said.

He speculated that perhaps the 10 in Galveston had become wards of the state of Texas or maybe came under jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Meritorious And Not A Threat

The federal confusion might stem from the fact that practices in Galveston are even more obscure than those of the program at large.

Young adult immigrants came to be living in a Galveston homeless shelter because the Office of Refugee Resettlement asked for that to happen, said James T. Keel, the Children Center’s president and CEO.

In 2006, the resettlement office asked the Children’s Center to take in an Ethiopian girl who was about to age out of the program for unaccompanied children, Keel said. The girl, a Christian, faced religious persecution if she were deported, Keel said. All involved also thought sending her to an adult detention center while her residency petition was adjudicated would be unfair, he said. And so, she lived in Galveston under the auspices of the center’s Transitional Living Program until she was united with relatives in Colorado, Keel said.

Since then, immigration judges have allowed 10 immigrants to age out the children’s program and into the center’s Transitional Living Program instead of a federal detention center, Keel said.

“That was allowed because their cases were meritorious and they posed no threat,” Keel said.

Galveston is the only place in the United States where that practice occurs, according to children’s center documents.

Funds Stop At 18

While the resettlement office’s best wishes might accompany the immigrants into adulthood, the federal money stops when they turn 18, as does any federal oversight.

There is no dedicated funding for the adults, Keel said. Services are paid for with the center’s funds just like many services for the homeless are, Keel said.

“We paid for it through our fundraising,” he said.

The Transitional Living Program had no place to house the 10 adult immigrants, so they moved into the second floor of the Family Crisis Center, a shelter for homeless people with children on Avenue M in Galveston run by the Children’s Center.

That turned out to be a mistake, said Elizabeth Kinard, who ran the transitional program until December 2010 when she left in a disagreement about the 10 who had aged out of the federal program.

Kinard said she thought the center could have developed a successful program for the young adult immigrants had it had enough money for staff and facilities. But it didn’t have that money, she said.

Some of the young adults in the program had experienced crime and violence in their home countries and been used for sex or smuggling or both on their journeys to this country, she said. Some had become tough, street-smart, cynical, opportunistic and predatory.

“It needed to be a highly structured program,” Kinard, a 23-year social worker, said. “These children need a lot of structure, a lot of therapy, a lot of everything, and there was no money for that age group.”

Kinard said she argued in a letter to the center’s board that the best thing was to shut down the program and let the federal government take the 10 into adult detention.

“The center may have been trying to do a good thing by taking this on, but it didn’t have to, and it shouldn’t have,” she said.

Kinard said she was laid off after that letter.

Police Reports

Keel and other center officials said the program was working. Some of the immigrants in the transitional program are going to school; some are taking GED courses; many are doing volunteer work and doing chores around the center and all are having to abide by such rules as an 11 p.m. curfew, they said.

But the public record adds other details to that story.

A little after 1 a.m. New Year’s Eve, for example, George and another 18-year-old man from among the 10 went to Menard Park in a purple Hyundai, according to police reports.

A little later, a patrol officer in the 1200 block of 26th Street heard about six gunshots coming from the park and saw the Hyundai limping toward him on a flat tire, police said.

Terry Leon Bernard, 39, of Galveston, was arrested on two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in connection with the incident.

Bernard told police his girlfriend believed her 12-year-old daughter had been having sex with George, according to police reports and other sources. Bernard said he sent a text message from the girl’s cellphone inviting George to the park for sex, sources said. The implication was he planned to at least put fear into George about the alleged relationship with the girl.

Bernard remains jailed on charges including unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon, two felony assault charges and a parole board warrant, according to jail information.

In The Shelter

On Jan. 18, a staff member at the Family Crisis Center said she saw George go into a room followed shortly by a 15-year-old girl who was staying at the shelter with her family, said Tino Gonzalez, the center’s executive vice president.

The two were in the room for only a few minutes, Gonzalez said. But the situation was enough to prompt the staff member to call the police, then Gonzalez. George was questioned about whether he was having sex with the underaged girl, a police report was filed and an investigation is under way, police sources said. No charges had been filed, police said.

George was removed from the crisis center building and now is residing in another of the center’s facilities, Gonzalez said.

The girl was taken into foster care, and her parents were evicted from the shelter for a rules violation unrelated to the Jan. 18 incident, Gonzalez said.

Robbed And Shot

About 8:30 p.m. Jan. 25, George and a 19-year-old man, who also had aged out of the federal program, were robbed in the 4000 block of Broadway. George was shot in the leg and taken to the University of Texas Medical Branch. Endiah Pines and Akylius Spurlock, both 18, and Deshawn Cockrell, 19, each were charged with aggravated robbery and jailed on $200,000 bonds.

Keel and Gonzalez said some of the young men in transitional programs have green cards and can work.

George, however, is not allowed to work, according to his pro bono immigration attorney. The Children’s Center feeds those among the 10 who, like George, can’t work, Gonzalez and Keel said.

The men rely on Salvation Army vouchers and other charitable programs for the rest of what they need, the two said.

No one seems to know how George was able to pay for a cellphone, get access to a car or have anything worth stealing at gunpoint.

Treatment for the gunshot wound George received during the robbery was covered by Medicaid, Keel said.

Federal Money

The implication that an adult man had sex with an underage girl in a shelter meant to be a haven for homeless families and funded largely by community contributions caused consternation among many, including some of the organization’s donors.

Most won’t speak on the record for fear, they said, of legal action by the center. Even so, they generated a wave of outrage and concern that forced to the surface a disagreement between The Children’s Center and the federal government that threatens the 134-year-old organization’s very existence.

Auditors from Null-Lairson in 2009 ruled the center improperly spent almost $630,000 in federal money earmarked for the unaccompanied alien children program on “unrelated expenses.”

The Division of Payment Management of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agreed and demanded the money back, according to documents.

Dispute In Limbo

Keel said none of that money was spent sheltering the 10 who aged out of the federal program. Documents filed on the center’s behalf in an appeal seem to say otherwise.

The appeal documents said “some of the funds ... were ultimately used by TCCI following Hurricane Ike to cover expenses related to continued residential services provided through the Transitional Living Program to child immigrants who were older than 17 years of age.”

It went on to argue “the expenses for residential services provided to child immigrants who aged past 18 would have been incurred by the federal government ... had they been released by TCCI.”

Center officials also argue the money was spent not only as allowed but as required by its contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The matter, like the 10 immigrants, is in limbo, awaiting a decision about whether the Children’s Center will have to repay the money.

“A repayment option is probably the kiss of death for TCCI,” a board member wrote in a June email about the situation.

Housing Arrangements

Many of the people interviewed for this article said young, single adult men should never have been housed in the same facility as homeless families with children, as still is being done at the Family Crisis Center. They said it was a violation of best practices and was not what donors thought they were funding when they gave money to that shelter.

Center officials, however, said the building had long been intended for use as a shelter for both families and young homeless adults.

The center used policies, procedures, devices and staff members to monitor the interactions between the two groups, they said.

The center acted appropriately when the concern about George and the girl arose, Mark Stevens, an attorney representing the center wrote in a letter to Daily News editors as this story was being reported.

The center “... does not act in loco parentis, nor can anyone supervise the activity of all persons at all times in any setting other than, perhaps, a jail or prison,” Stevens wrote.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Minori Stranieri Non Accompagnati © 2015 - Designed by, Plugins By