Nonprofit defends care of child refugees
UPDATED: July 8, revising the 3rd paragraph
NASHVILLE (BP) -- A Texas nonprofit is responding to criticisms by several former employees of its care of Latin American children who have crossed the border into the U.S.
The nonprofit known by the initials BCFS was identified in a Fox News website report as formerly being known as "Baptist Child & Family Services." Fox News quoted several unnamed former employees in its July 3 report who criticized BCFS for its shelter operations at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and Fort Sill in Oklahoma.
BCFS is not related to the Southern Baptist Convention. It is listed as a partner organization at the Baptist General Convention of Texas' website under the Human Care Institutions list of Child/Family Care Institutions. BCFS is among various affiliated organizations that receive funding from the Texas convention, which also elects a portion of the BCFS trustees.
BCFS, based in San Antonio, states on its website that it is "a global system of health and human services non-profit organizations with locations and programs throughout the U.S. as well as Eastern Europe, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa."
The BCFS website, however, makes no reference to its former Baptist name and does not list the Texas convention among a number of partners, mostly federal agencies such as the U.S. Border Patrol.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas, in a July 7 news report, mentioned that director of disaster response Chris Liebrum would be traveling to San Antonio on Thursday (July 10) to meet with BCFS representatives and visit the Lackland shelter. The larger story, however, focused on a Dallas County shelter slated to open in August and a BGCT "For the Children" fundraising initiative.
BCFS is not listed as a partner of another state convention in Texas that also cooperates with the SBC -- the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention -- nor is BCFS related to children’s ministries in Maryland and Illinois with similar initials affiliated with their state conventions.
BCFS described its work with 1,000-plus Latin American children sheltered at Lackland in a statement titled "Correcting Misinformation about Lackland Operations" posted at the BCFS website after the July 3 Fox News report.
BCFS stated that the children "are under the conservatorship of the federal government." BCFS’ 16-person team of mental health clinicians "are supervised closely by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Refugee Resettlement Federal Field Specialist, who ultimately has decision making authority regarding all health and mental health matters."
BCFS stated, "For 70 years, BCFS has provided high-quality care for children, families and community … with the greatest level of transparency and integrity." It noted that "all persons involved in providing care and service to the children must agree to protect the identities and health records of the children in our care, just as any hospital or childcare operation requires."
Fox News, in its report, said several former employees had alleged "that the government is downplaying the health risks [at the Lackland shelter] and that a security force has been bullying staffers," threatening them with arrest "if they speak publicly about what is happening inside the facility."
BCFS, in its statement, said there had been 119 cases of head lice among the children, 22 with scabies and one Swine Flu diagnosis. Fox News, however, cited a former employee’s claim that more than 119 cases of head lice were being treated daily. "We would put 20 kids in front of us -- 10 in each row. You could see the bugs crawling through their hair," the unnamed source told Fox. Another unnamed source told Fox, "You were on your feet nonstop. They had chicken pox, measles, and there was a concern strep was spreading."
Regarding security, BCFS said it is provided by off-duty law enforcement officers. BCFS said its support staff in food service and other operations, many of whom have first-responder backgrounds, wear various colored shirts or vests to denote their specific roles.
Fox News had reported that the former BCFS workers said the security personnel, who wear tan shirts and blue pants, "treated them like prisoners -- and monitored their every move," and no workers were permitted to have cell phones. An unnamed current BCFS worker, however, was quoted by Fox News as stating, "I can’t imagine them being inappropriate with anyone. They might be direct. They might be firm. The rules are the federal government’s rules."
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, in its Texan Online edition June 5, reported that nearly 50 SBTC volunteers were called into disaster relief-type service in Brownsville the last two weeks of May at a processing shelter for the child refugees from Latin America. The volunteers provided an estimated 1,500 showers, 960 loads of laundry and 22,500 meals.
"Before we got there, Border Patrol was serving a dry bologna sandwich at 6 a.m. and at 6 p.m., one of the SBTC DR leaders, Jerry Bishop of Luskin, Texas, told the Texan. "We started serving three meals a day." FEMA, using government contractors, assumed responsibility for the operations in late May.
Craig Smith, worship and administration pastor at First Baptist Church in Brownsville, said, "Just the hopelessness you would see in their eyes -- very little expressions –- just the thought of all that they had been through must have been agonizing for them."
"My heart goes out to these kids," SBTC volunteer Kathy Poplin of Burkeville, Texas, said. "Their lives are just torn apart. It’s like they’re being shoved out to have a better home. It’s so sad."
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).