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Money in Politics

New Texas Law Means More Unwanted Children Placed with Private Companies

As The State's New Abortion Law Creates More Unwanted Babies, Another Law Funnels Them to Facilities Run by GOP Donors

Gov. Greg Abbott [R-TX], seen with former Pres. Donald Trump in Pharr, TX, on June 30, at an unfinished section of Trump's border wall.

 

(Image: Photo by Brandon Bell / Getty Images.)

On September 1, 666 new laws went into effect in Texas. Some of them stoked significant controversy, especially the abortion law, which at its very core is devoid of an objective basic understanding of the female reproductive system. The law has been condemned by just about every relevant medical expert, even at the United Nations.

Lawyers for the Department of Justice said the state's move was "in open defiance of the Constitution."

The new set of laws has been seen as so extremist, Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) and his political allies have been called ''The American Taliban'' on social media.

The restrictive abortion law has not only been seen as a human rights violation but it also has an impact on the state’s economy. Companies including Salesforce are rethinking their relationships with the state.

Unless the DOJ succeeds in getting the law struck down, more unwanted babies will be born in Texas, likely stressing the state’s foster care system, which has already deteriorated under Abbott’s watch. And the fate of Texas’s foster care system is also going to be affected by another of Abbott’s new laws, one that has received far less attention so far.

This new law bars the state from having foster children spend the night in settings that aren’t otherwise considered residential. These settings include Child Protective Services’ offices, motels, and churches. And the state had been resorting to that more frequently. According to the Texas Tribune, in one month alone this year, 415 Texas children spent at least two consecutive nights in unlicensed facilities.

On its own, the new law banning this has been touted as a positive move, but the state has not provided much of an alternative. The state has fewer beds than it used to, losing roughly 1000 beds in group homes.

Increasingly, the state was already turning more to the private sector. With the new law limiting alternative options, the state is paying to place more kids in residential treatment centers run by private companies, some of which are big GOP donors. One of them is GEO Group, the private prison operator.

According to the Texas Ethics Commission, GEO Group political action committees gave to several top Texas Republicans. Since 2018, GEO Group has given $35,000 to statewide GOP groups and also in 2018 the group notably gave $10,000 to the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton. The company gave upwards of $50,000 to Abbott ahead of the 2014 election through the Texans For Abbott PAC. According to Public Citizen, GEO Group’s PAC gave more to Texans For Abbott than to any other elected official with the exception of House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and former Pres. Donald Trump.

One of GEO Group’s centers is run by a subsidiary, Abraxas Youth and Family Services. One Abraxas facility, the Hector Garza Center, has been shuttered, although the state’s database still lists it as active.

According to court-ordered monitors in a recent federal court case, 81 percent of the children at the Hector Garza Center said they were put in painful physical restraints. Monitors also reported that children there were sleeping outside of bedrooms.

But closing such centers isn’t necessarily a remedy. According to the suit, several troubled facilities closed, changed names, and then reopened. It’s a common tactic among residential treatment centers in Texas and across the country.

On top of that, the state failed to follow through on its own closure recommendations. It recommended the closure of five facilities, but only three actually closed.

In Texas, there is also an overlap between the major players in foster care and in immigrant detention centers. And they have deep ties to top Texas Republicans at the federal level, where immigration policy is made. GEO Group in particular operates several facilities in South Texas. They saw a surge in use during the Trump Administration's acceleration of the family separation policy.

According to Federal Election Commission filings, GEO Group’s PAC donated $5000 to Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and $7500 to Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) in 2019. The group also gave $10,000 to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) in 2018.

GEO Group operates several facilities that are contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Many have notable histories of abuse. The Karnes County Residential Center in particular faced allegations of sexual abuse over the years.

Accusations of abuse are not limited to GEO Group facilities; many other programs across the state have history of child abuse.

According to reporting from the Texas Observer, in 2019 there were more than 2000 reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation in residential treatment centers, where 12 percent of the state’s children in foster care end up.

In November 2020, a worker at the Youth and Family Enrichment Center in Tyler, Texas, was convicted for having sex with an underage boy who ran away from the program.

In a federal lawsuit, court monitors found that between July 2019 and April 2021, 23 children died in state custody. Six of the deaths were tied to abuse or neglect.

The Texas foster care system also outsources kids to the same kinds of facilities out of state. One of them is Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The facility was recently shuttered after a high profile case in which 16-year-old Cornelius Frederick was restrained by several program workers after throwing a sandwich. His death was ruled a homicide. Lakeside was one of three programs contracted by the state of Texas.

Federally contracted residential treatment centers involved with the family separation policy were as far away as Pennsylvania. Residents there faced similar issues.

One facility of note is called KidsPeace in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

That center had 18 incidents of reported physical maltreatment, 11 incidents of verbal maltreatment, and seven incidents of staff sexual assault on children, according to Children’s Rights and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

As a whole, KidsPeace owns and operates facilities in multiple states and has a rampant, well-documented history of abuse. Their facility in Minnesota was shut down following several troubling allegations, including placing children as young as 12 into ‘fight clubs

The Justice Department in a court filing Monday resumed its legal battle to kill the Texas abortion law. The filing includes the stories of Texas women whose financial circumstances and child-care needs make it difficult for them to seek abortions out of state, raising the prospect Texas will soon have more foster children on its hands and in the hands of private, for-profit companies.

Abbott’s office did not respond to TYT’s request for comment.

Andy Hirschfeld is a freelance reporter. You can find him on Twitter @andyreports

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