Albion facility to house hundreds of unaccompanied migrant children

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Up to 240 unaccompanied migrant children will be housed in Albion on the campus of a nonprofit organization that specializes in child behavioral health services.

Starr Commonwealth said in a Friday release it signed a facilities agreement with the federal government that allows the Department of Health and Human Services to use its 350-acre campus to help alleviate the developing humanitarian crisis at the Southern border between the U.S. and Mexico. 

The site will serve as a temporary shelter for children 12 and younger. Details about the arrival of the children are being withheld to protect their safety, the release said. 

“For more than a century, our campus has served as a safe haven for children in need,” said Starr Commonwealth President and CEO Elizabeth Carey in a statement. “We have again been called to open our hearts and our campus as a refuge — this time to children arriving without parents or guardians at our southern border.

Starr Commonwealth was founded in 1913 as a home for runaway boys and since has evolved to providing community-based programming, education and behavioral health services for children.

Albion Mayor Victoria Garcia Snyder, in a video message on Friday, noted the urgency of addressing the border crisis and said the city supports Starr's partnership to provide emergency aid. 

“At this time, when our nation is now dealing with a crisis of immigrant children coming in unaccompanied, this is the most opportune time to utilize this facility in providing caring, secure homes for these individuals,” she said. “The time that they will spend with us may be short, it may be long. But regardless of the length of their stay with us, I want them to know that with open arms we do welcome these young individuals to our community.”

Young minors lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas, Tuesday, March 30, 2021. The minors are housed by the hundreds in eight pods that are about 3,200 square feet in size. Many of the pods had more than 500 children in them.

There was a large increase in migrant family arrivals in 2019 when the Trump administration’s practice of generally separating parents from their children at the border ended.

The latest influx follows devastating storms in Central America as well as those fleeing violence and poverty.

With roughly 4,500 children waiting in Border Patrol facilities unequipped for long-term detention, with some sleeping on floors, the Department of Health and Human Services has rushed in recent weeks to open holding sites across the country and tried to expedite its processes for releasing children in custody. About 9,500 minors are in DHHS custody.

Several hundred kids and teenagers are crossing the border daily, most fleeing violence, poverty or the effects of natural disasters in Central America. President Joe Biden has declined to resume his predecessor’s practice of expelling unaccompanied children.

But his administration has continued expelling adults under a coronavirus-related public health declaration enacted by former President Donald Trump. Biden also has tried to expel most families traveling together, but changes in Mexican law have forced agents to release many parents and children into the U.S.

In a statement Friday, U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, slammed the decision to bring the young migrants to Albion.

“I am appalled the Biden Administration is sending unaccompanied alien children from the border into Michigan,” she said. “President Biden’s open-border policies are encouraging parents to send their kids into our country alone."

In February 2020, 19 migrant children separated from their families were placed in Michigan by the federal government. 

Advocates have expected that the state would be taking in more unaccompanied children, who were with their parents seeking asylum before the adults were turned away at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration's 2019 policy.

Derek Allen, Starr's executive vice president and chief operating officer, noted the campus includes nine ranch-style houses as well as additional two- and three-story houses, all set up with bedrooms furnished for two or three children per room. 

Each home will accommodate up to 12 to 15 children and is equipped with its own kitchen and dining space, living space and recreational space with pool tables or ping pong tables and board games. 

This is an example of the housing conditions inside Flynn Cottage at Starr Commonwealth in Albion, where up to 240 unaccompanied migrant children will be housed. The image was captured from video provided by Starr Commonwealth.

The campus also has a gymnasium, cafeteria, school buildings, chapel, ball fields, a track and a lakeside park. Currently, the gymnasium is set up for the intake of children that come in to ensure safe distancing amid the pandemic. The site also has a fully functional medical clinic "to be able to provide for the safety and any medical welfare that the children need."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services directed questions to federal DHHS and Starr Commonwealth officials.

The nonprofit last July discontinued residential behavioral treatment programs after board members voted to terminate its contract with a controversial service provider.

Sequel Youth and Family Services had partnered with Starr to run Starr Albion Prep, a residential behavioral and treatment facility for kids ages 12-18. It had employed 270 staff members at the Albion campus. 

Starr's board ended its relationship with Sequel the month after Whitmer ordered the MDHHS to no longer work with Sequel or permit it to provide services for facilities licensed by the state. 

Sequel fell under scrutiny following the May 1, 2020, death of 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks, a Lakeside Academy student in Kalamazoo who had been restrained by staff for throwing a sandwich in the youth home cafeteria. Sequel had been under contract to provide staffing at Lakeside.

The company told The News last summer that it mourned the “senseless and tragic loss of Cornelius” and that the actions taken by staff members do not adhere to its policies.

Carey, in a statement released July 1, 2020, noted that Starr's relationship with Sequel was different than the company's role with Lakeside. Since 2015, Starr had run its campus with Sequel as a partner but employed many longtime Starr employees to run the programming. 

The federal Administration for Families and Children is providing bilingual caregivers who have a background in child welfare or development to care for the children while on the campus, officials noted.

The organization is expecting each child to stay for 30 days or lessbefore they are reunited with family or placed with a sponsor.

Each child will be screened for COVID-19 prior to traveling to Michigan and again upon their arrival to the campus. Those who test positive will quarantine in one of two cottages on the campus, the company said in a release.

“Our expertise in healing trauma and building resilience can truly benefit the children who will be coming to our campus,” Carey said. “Many of us have all watched the heartbreaking pictures on the nightly news of children who have been abandoned in the desert, far away from home and without their families, and wondered how we can help. Starr has safe beds, secure cottages and a campus of caring people — this is how we can, and must, help.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement is not providing media access to facilities being used to house unaccompanied children due to the pandemic, spokesperson Luisana Perez Fernandez told The News Friday. 

"The safety and privacy of kids and staff is our priority, and we are considering potential options to allow media to tour the facilities in the near future," she wrote. 

cferretti@detroitnews.com

The Associated Press contributed.