Immigration advocates and several local elected officials are opposed to the D.C. shelter, saying children should not be warehoused. The mayor said last week that she would not accept such facilities.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defended the treatment of children in its care and said they have their own beds and access to meals, legal services, recreation and classes.
“We treat the children in our care with dignity and respect, and deliver services to them in a compassionate and organized manner while we work expeditiously to unify each one with a suitable sponsor,” the press office at the agency’s Administration for Children and Families said in a statement last week.
The agency awarded a $20.5 million contract in August to Maryland-based Dynamic Service Solutions to operate the D.C. shelter for children ages 12 to 17. Federal officials said the final capacity would depend on the city’s licensing requirements.
The D.C. Child and Family Services Agency found the contractor’s application for the facility “inadequate” but did not reject it outright, according to a D.C. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing matter.
The emergency regulations, which were adopted Friday, do not name the project specifically but would not allow for facilities with more than 15 children and would require the agency’s director to sign off on any facility housing between eight and 15 children.
The rules expire in mid-December. A permanent version must go through a public comment period before taking effect.
A person who answered the phone at Dynamic Service Solutions referred questions to HHS. The federal agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The owner of the proposed shelter site, Douglas Development, also has been facing pressure to back out of the deal.
D.C. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4), whose district includes Takoma, wrote a letter to the developer asking officials to “terminate any action” at the property, and he said he and other community leaders have not heard from the federal contractor that plans to operate the facility. Local activists also are planning a protest in front of the building next week.
Douglas Jemal, who leads Douglas Development, said his business leases the four-story building to the international language school Education First, which in turn planned to lease the building for the immigrant shelter.
“Douglas Jemal and Douglas Development has nothing to do with this, whatever you want to call it, this facility. Nothing,” Jemal said Wednesday during a phone interview. “The language school is paying the rent, they are not in default, and if they want to sublease it to a legal use, they have every right to do so.”
Education First did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Several elected officials said they did not want to be complicit in the Trump administration’s policies of separating immigrant children from their parents.
But the shelter in Takoma is meant to house minors who arrived at the border without a parent or guardian until they can be placed with a relative or sponsor in the United States. Some may have been separated by their parents or in legal disputes surrounding their status, but most are unaccompanied.
A group of six D.C. residents who held senior positions in HHS under the Obama administration wrote to Bowser last week urging her to reconsider outright opposition to the proposed shelter.
“While the District’s intent in opposing an unaccompanied children’s shelter is noble, such action is unlikely to benefit children and may make it more likely that children are harmed, forcing longer stays in crowded Customs and Border Protection facilities or in massive temporary shelters that are not licensed by a state or local child welfare agency,” they wrote.
Asked on Wednesday about that letter, Bowser said her administration is “making sure emergency housing facilities that support children are small and dignified, and that’s our position.”
Jemal criticized the mayor’s attempt to stop the shelter, saying that she and others were conflating the issue of unaccompanied minors who need housing with family separations.
“I thought we are a blue area — we welcome illegals, we are a ‘sanctuary city,’ ” Jemal said. “Now these are kids, juveniles that have crossed the border illegally. Where are we supposed to put them?”
The mayor and other officials have said they also object to having dozens of vulnerable children under one roof. They also criticized Dynamic Service Solutions for lacking an extensive track record caring for children.
“If the Trump-Jemal approach was presented with smaller, dignified facilities with known providers, the District of Columbia’s response would be different,” John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff, said in a statement. “No more warehouses.”
District officials recently closed a large shelter for homeless families at the former D.C. General hospital site and are building a network of smaller facilities spread out across the city.
The disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd from D.C. General in 2014 put a glaring spotlight on poor conditions at the shelter.
“We know when facilities are too big to support children, okay?” Bowser said at a news conference this week. “And I don’t need to remind anyone we don’t know where Relisha Rudd is — and her parent was with her.”
Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) is considering legislation to prohibit large-scale facilities for children, which would effectively turn the mayor’s emergency rules into law.
Jemal said conditions at the language-school site are far better than the motels that the city uses as overflow space for homeless families.
“The facility is magnificent — and then go to New York Avenue and see our facilities for children,” Jemal said. “Where should the emergency legislation take place: Should it be on the [language-school site] or the shelters on New York Avenue?”
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.