A For-Profit Firm Accused of Child Abuse Wants to Open a Center for Migrant Youth in Los Angeles

The company has been investigated multiple times following accusations of violence and mistreatment of the children in its care
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A proposed for-profit detention center for migrant children that have been separated from their families is drawing ire from both immigrants’ rights activists and local officials in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Arleta. On Monday, dozens of protesters gathered outside of the site of the planned facility, voicing opposition to its placement in the working class, mostly Latino/a community.

The 148 bed shelter, which would be located in an abandoned assisted living facility on Woodman Avenue, is being planned by the controversial youth detention firm VisionQuest. In July, the company was awarded $25 million in grants from the federal government, intended to fund housing for hundreds of unaccompanied minors in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California.

VisionQuest has been investigated multiple times following accusations of violence and mistreatment of children. In one of the company’s most recent controversies, inspectors found that multiple instances of abuse had taken place at a youth shelter in Philadelphia. Children had chairs thrown at them, were slapped and choked, and were told that they were “nothing” and that staff would “make life a living hell” the children in their care. The shelter closed in 2017.

Ruben Rodriguez, an Arleta resident and member of the Cesar Chavez Commemorative Committee, helped organize Monday’s demonstration. He says placing a detention facility in the middle of an immigrant community like Arleta is dangerous and a “terrible use of resources,” particularly given reports of mistreatment in other federally run facilities for immigrants. “People have died in detention centers as a result of not being treated for colds or infectious diseases,” he says. “And there have been allegations of sexual abuse.”

Rodriguez also suspects there are political motivations behind the placement of such a center in California, which has become something of a battle ground for immigration issues. In October of last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a new bill banning for-profit prisons and detention centers in the state. Almost immediately after the law was passed, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement put out a call soliciting proposals for new detention facilities in San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—apparently looking to secure contracts before the ban went into effect in January 2020.

“I think Trump would really like to make this a spectacle and say, ‘You know what? We’re putting in the center here. The hell with state rights, the federal government trumps state rights,’” says Rodriguez. “No pun intended.”

The city of Los Angeles placed its own ban on the construction and operation of for-profit detention centers within its borders in July, 2019, and is currently updating its zoning codes to block such facilities. But according to city records obtained by the investigative journalism nonprofit Reveal, VisionQuest’s team assured Los Angeles city officials in a meeting that their center “would not be a detention facility.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which provided VisionQuest with the grant, has said that it is a child welfare agency that operates “state licensed residential centers,” not a law enforcement agency that operates detention centers.

But local officials remain skeptical that there is a difference. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez, whose district includes Arleta, has voiced strong opposition to the facility’s opening, deeming it a “prison,” and criticizing it for attempting to “profit off of the anguish of children.”

“As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, I am vehemently opposed to placing immigrant children in what some call holding facilities or detention centers,” said Martinez in a statement. “For-profit operations like VisionQuest—whose so-called expertise is in youth discipline programming—working for a dishonest federal government that actively engaged in, and then lied about, separating immigrant children from their parents, is a recipe for human disaster.”

In November, Martinez introduced a motion asking the city to assess the legality of VisionQuest’s proposal. It will soon be heard by the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee.

Democratic Congressman Tony Cárdenas also voiced his concerns about the proposed facility in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security. “We have seen the harmful and traumatizing effects caused by the cruel and unsafe conditions at detention facilities and I will continue fighting against the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies,” he wrote. “As Congressmember for this district, I will continue to speak out against such a holding facility opening in my backyard that would put more children in cruel and unsafe conditions.”

VisionQuest did not respond to a request for comment from Los Angeles, but its CEO Mark Contento told Reveal that the company understands “there is a great deal of emotion tied to the proper care of these children, and there is a lot of misinformation online.”

Founded in the 1970s by former AmeriCorps volunteer Bob Burton, the Arizona-based firm began as a wilderness reform program that “adopted many American Indian traditions over the years to help troubled teens and their families grow together,” according to a now-deleted mission statement on the company website. Along with holding sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, its early practices included the controversial use of “confrontation” therapy, in which children were tackled and yelled at by staff members.

In subsequent years, staff members at VisionQuest facilities were repeatedly accused of physically and mentally abusing young residents, prompting investigations by both state and national entities. “The fact that these allegations have occurred over many years at different VisionQuest facilities seems to preclude any claim that all the allegations are false or are a result of prejudice, disgruntled employees, or misunderstood policies,” read a 1994 Department of Civil Rights investigation into the firm.

As the company has struggled to remain profitable in recent years, it has attempted to expand its business to include shelters for unaccompanied immigrant minors, receiving multiple federal grants to do so. Attempts to open these shelters in cities like Philadelphia, San Antonio, and Albuquerque have faced significant backlash, and have been blocked by state and local officials.

As similar opposition swells in Los Angeles, Rodriguez says organizers are looking into building a larger coalition of activists. “We may need a more comprehensive strategy,” he says. “Our number one priority, obviously, is for the place not to open up. But if the community manages to stop it, they may put it out in the desert someplace where there is nobody watching what these people do.”

A follow-up meeting about the Arleta facility will be held Thursday, January 9th at 6pm at the San Fernando offices of Pueblo y Salud.


RELATED: ICE Shuts Down an L.A. Organization’s Hotline for Immigrants After OITNB Plug


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