‘I Was Told to Not Tell People Where I Worked’: This For-Profit Shelter for Migrant Kids Has a Shady Past
A new shelter in Arizona has been accused of misleading the community and downplaying a COVID outbreak—and the company running it has a long history of abuse allegations.
In early February, a for-profit corporation that’s received millions of dollars from the federal government to house migrant kids—and has long been plagued with accusations of child abuse at its residential facilities for at-risk youth—began quietly accommodating unaccompanied boys in the desert plains of Benson, Arizona.
VisionQuest’s new property, which bears no signage, occupies a former Days Inn hotel off Interstate 10 and is down the road from a Denny’s eatery, RV park, and string of hotels. One former employee told The Daily Beast they were warned not to discuss their new job as residents began asking questions about the building, which held 20 teenagers earlier this month and has the capacity for 48 migrant children.
“When I was being trained I was told to not tell people where I worked and not tell people what I do,” said the person, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “So when word finally did get out on the community boards, we took it up to the program director for her to respond and set the truth straight. She laughed and said no.”
As VisionQuest attempts to open additional shelter facilities for unaccompanied migrant children in border states and beyond, the Arizona-based corporation is battling immigration rights advocates and residents in cities where it’s attempting to open shop. Some activists and elected officials have described VisionQuest’s facilities not as shelters but “detention facilities,” because residents aren’t free to leave. VisionQuest rejects that term and has said it provides migrant kids with meals, clothing, their own beds, classroom education, health care and mental health services until their parents or guardians are found.
But the company’s past—including racist remarks by its founder, alleged physical abuse in its homes, repeated escapes, shuttered childcare centers, misleading statements to authorities, and even a cocaine-running conviction—has haunted it as it has sought to profit off the recurring surges of unaccompanied minors at the nation’s southern border. Many of the children in VisionQuest’s Benson center have also tested positive for COVID, the former employee told us, adding that the facility wasn’t transparent when residents and colleagues were sick, and that “people would come in with a cough regularly because we were understaffed.”
VisionQuest and its executives did not return messages seeking comment.
When asked about VisionQuest’s prior abuse allegations this week, company president and CEO Mark Contento told azfamily.com that critics should see the Benson facility for themselves. “It’s a common concern when people don’t understand the nature of what we are or what we're doing,” Contento told the outlet.
Last year, the Los Angeles City Council passed a temporary ban on privately run detention centers for migrant youth—specifically to stop VisionQuest from opening a facility in the neighborhood of Arleta. Referring to VisionQuest’s shelters, City Council President Nury Martinez told the Los Angeles Times: “You can call them whatever you want... but I choose to call them prisons because that’s what they are.” Officials in East Waco, Texas, also pushed back against VisionQuest, denying the company’s permit for a new shelter because of security concerns and the history of accusations, in lawsuits and in the press, of employees’ neglect and abuse of children. In Kansas City, Missouri, VisionQuest retreated from a proposal to build another migrant facility just as immigrant rights activists were preparing public comments against it. At the time, a VisionQuest spokesman said the firm withdrew its plans because Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) funding was needed for the COVID pandemic instead.
VisionQuest has had more success in Arizona, where in 2020 it secured a license to operate a new 50-bed facility in Tucson, according to a U.S. Senate report. The company is also leasing space from a former segregated school in Tucson that’s now a community center. That space, inside the historic Dunbar Pavilion, will become VisionQuest’s “first transitional school for unaccompanied migrant girls” and will accommodate 50 kids between 5 and 17 years old, one local TV station reported. Politicians and community organizers opposed the facility, with Tucson Council Member Lane Santa Cruz releasing a statement that said, in part: “In honoring the history of resilience, The Dunbar should at minimum conduct an investigation and take inventory before getting into the business of caging children and contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The tide of bad press may have been why VisionQuest—and its real-estate investor landlord, Jarrett Reidhead—were not so forthcoming in documents submitted to the city of Benson, which is 60 miles north of the border and has fewer than 5,000 residents. In construction documents filed last April, Reidhead described the Benson property as “a transitional facility to temporarily house children (10-17 years old) until a permamnet [sic] home can be found." Reidhead added: "The average stay is 7 days but never longer than 29 days. This will not be an institutional facility. There will be no counseling or long term care available.” That those children were unaccompanied migrants wasn’t spelled out.
Reidhead did not return messages, nor did representatives for HHS, which since 2014 has provided more than $6.8 billion in grants to VisionQuest and a host of other for-profit and nonprofit entities to operate shelters for migrant children. HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) cares for the kids through its network of 195 shelters, which are usually state licensed and employ case managers, mental health clinicians and medical staff.
The number of unaccompanied kids in ORR care has soared. In March, nearly 19,000 migrant children—the largest ever recorded in a single month—were stopped at the southern border, and in some cases, separated from their families. The surge of asylum seekers fleeing poverty and violence in Central America has left the Biden administration scrambling to find facilities to house them. In recent weeks, HHS asked the Pentagon to house kids at two Texas military bases and for federal employees of agencies including the Federal Trade Commission and NASA to volunteer working at overcrowded border facilities. Meanwhile, a Texas nonprofit called Endeavors won an $86-million contract with the federal government to place migrant families in hotel rooms near the border.
When migrant children and teens arrive in the U.S. without their parents, they’re held at Border Patrol detention centers for what’s supposed to be a maximum of 72 hours before they’re transferred to HHS-funded shelters, many of which are operated by nonprofits and faith-based entities. The children stay at the shelters until officials can vet sponsors, usually relatives but sometimes foster parents, to take them in. But a backlog of detainees means some kids, including those younger than 12, are spending up to a week at overcrowded Border Patrol processing centers, the Washington Post reported.
According to the Post, the Biden administration is spending at least $60 million a week on HHS shelters for migrant children. That price tag is expected to rise as the feds open more emergency intake sites, including one at the San Diego Convention Center in California and the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio, Texas.
The biggest players in the field are nonprofit operators such as BCFS Health and Human Services and Southwest Key Programs, both of which are based in Texas. While the feds have previously shut down Southwest Key shelters amid accusations of abuse, the group continues to run institutions for unaccompanied children—pulling in a whopping $1.66 billion in federal contracts just since 2018.
The Daily Beast has previously reported on the massive salaries such nonprofits dole out to their executives. But longtime immigration attorney Hope Frye, who testified before Congress on conditions at immigration detention facilities in 2019, argued that for-profit contractors like VisionQuest have a particularly perverse incentive to maximize gains and neglect children in their care. And, often, the only oversight comes from state and local licensing authorities with limited inspection capacity.
“Problems can occur for a long time before anybody’s aware of it,” Frye told The Daily Beast. “I think the use of for-profit contractors in the detention of children is never in the best interest of children.”
Benson, and Cochise County, have become another flashpoint in the border crisis.
At one public meeting on April 1, angry residents lashed out at the mayor and city council because the city had approved VisionQuest’s shelter. They demanded the city now shut the facility down and hurled pointed questions at VisionQuest brass. Much of the outrage was focused on the secretive opening of the detention center and the specter of bringing more “illegal aliens,” a derogatory term for undocumented immigrants, into the area, rather than the welfare of the children and VisionQuest’s controversial track record with youth in its care.
One woman told the crowd that no one in Benson’s government knew the former hotel would become a detention facility for unaccompanied minors. “The plain truth is nobody in Benson and definitely not in Cochise County for the most part... We really didn't know, did we?” she argued. “It was played. The whole county, even the city council, you guys didn’t really know, did you?”
Benson Mayor Joe Konrad replied, “No.”
“In truth, you actually had no idea illegals were moving into your community, did you?”
“That’s correct,” Konrad said.
“They didn’t tell you, did they?” the woman fumed. “They just did it.”
The dispute comes as Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels warns the feds of a “border crisis” that he claims includes an influx of undocumented immigrants, drug trafficking and human smuggling that local law enforcement is forced to handle without federal accountability. VisionQuest’s facilities, Dannels told The Daily Beast, are a byproduct of a broken process at the border. “That’s why I’ve been very loud about it,” said Dannels, who’s appeared on Fox News to bash President Biden’s immigration policies, which he says are bringing drug cartels to the area. “You have a rural community with limited resources concerned about the future, and now this is sprung upon them.”
Dannels noted one January incident when an Arizona man and suspected “coyote” led Border Patrol agents and Bisbee cops on a deadly high-speed chase. The driver’s rented pickup, according to one local news report, held eight undocumented people from Mexico and two were killed when the vehicle flipped. “This is a federal problem that has not only affected the Benson community but the border and this country,” Dannels said, referring to the Biden administration’s refusal to call the influx of migrants a crisis. “The federal government needs to take ownership, admit it’s a crisis and then fix it.”
Sgt. Tim Williams, who oversees the sheriff’s border operations, says his unit has encountered a 300-percent increase in illegal border crossings. In 2017, the agency set up a countywide camera system to detect undocumented immigrants. So far this year, deputies responded to 7,585 illegal entries which included 33 suspected drug mules, one of whom was arrested, according to county data. The sheriff’s office said 1,149 of the 3,379 undocumented people captured on cameras last month were apprehended—compared to 835 migrants spotted on cameras and 319 arrested in March 2020. As part of this year’s border watch, authorities also seized 807 pounds of marijuana from smugglers who fled. “We have cameras deployed all over our county—we get immediate pictures on the cameras,” Williams told The Daily Beast. “If they’re drug mules, we deploy and try to get them. They’re in the hardest part of the county to work. They might drop the drugs and run, and we don’t find them again.”
Immigration activists are also unhappy with the trend of private entities opening migrant children detention facilities, which they say are rife with claims of abuse. Data released in 2019 showed ORR received more than 4,500 complaints about sexual abuse or sexual harassment of immigrant kids in government custody. While a majority of those accusations involved one minor abusing another child, 178 of the complaints alleged abuse by adult staff at HHS-funded shelters.
In 2018, Reveal published an investigation detailing the government’s funding of immigrant shelters with histories of abuse and neglect. The report highlighted Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas, where migrant kids were forcibly injected with psychiatric drugs. ProPublica also uncovered hundreds of sexual assault accusations at HHS-funded immigrant youth shelters—including a Tucson facility run by the nonprofit Southwest Key Programs—as well as police calls for fights and missing children. That year, authorities arrested two Southwest Key employees in Arizona on sexual misconduct charges. One has since been convicted and sentenced to 19 years in federal prison for molesting seven teenage boys in his company’s custody. Another awaits trial in June for allegedly fondling a 14-year-old girl hosted at the facility where he worked.
A week after the heated Benson City Council meeting, during which VisionQuest executives tried to assure residents they were helping kids while also protecting the community, one 14-year-old boy scaled a fence and fled the property.
Benson police caught the teen shortly after he escaped around 10 a.m. last Thursday and waited with him until the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could collect him, reported one local newspaper, the Herald Review.
“Because this was an escape, ICE is involved, and he will be handed over to ICE officials,” Carol Keller, VisionQuest’s chief operations officer, told the news outlet.
For his part, Mayor Konrad told the newspaper the teenager hadn’t finished his two-week quarantine before leaving the shelter. (Asked about COVID cases at the VisionQuest facility, Konrad told The Daily Beast in an email: “I have heard that they have had active cases. That is from Carol Keller, Vision Quest COO. I’m sorry but I do not have a number of cases to go along with that.”)
Benson Police Chief Paul Moncada told The Daily Beast that the teen “didn’t give a reason for leaving the facility” when an officer apprehended him. Moncada didn’t know whether the child had tested positive for COVID at the building.
“We will respond to any and all calls at the VisionQuest facility the same as we do everywhere else in the city,” Moncada said in an email. “Given the amount of coverage the media has put out about the surge at the border and the implications some people have made about it, I understand the citizens’ concerns.”
Konrad and Dannels recently toured the hotel-turned-migrant quarters and told the City Council they were impressed with how it was run. Konrad described the Benson holding center as safe, secure, sanitary and well-managed, while Dannels reported finding no “red flags.”
The former employee of VisionQuest, however, said they quit because a majority of the kids had tested positive for COVID and the company had “no clear policy” on personal protective equipment. “They are also quite literally bringing COVID patients into Benson,” the person said. “And with the lack of organization, the workplace becomes toxic.” The former employee added: “I was literally told by a higher-up: ‘Just show up, hang out for 8 hours and go home.’”
The spread of COVID, the former employee claimed, led to VisionQuest raising workers’ $16- or $17-an-hour wages by $3 as “a kind of hazard pay.”
“There were people who got sick but when asking what they had we were told to mind our own business,” the former worker said. “And if you missed too much time then they would get mad, so people would come in with a cough regularly because we were understaffed.”
In 2015, one VisionQuest child care worker in Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit also accusing the company of understaffing—a claim that's mirrored in employee reviews on sites like Glassdoor. In the suit, the employee claimed the company asked him and some colleagues to take unpaid furlough days despite their salary being covered by state grants. The now-settled complaint also said the company retaliated against the employee and fired him after he complained “that understaffing was a problem” and “that VisionQuest was more concerned about money than safety issues.”
Controversy has dogged VisionQuest for decades, as The Daily Beast detailed in 2019. As far back as 1979, founder Robert Burton defended using the N-word, amid a military probe into whether his staff had subjected youth in one of its group homes to sexist and racist verbal abuse—as well as to punishing “physicals” where workers would shove the young residents against the walls or floors and twist their limbs. The inquiry concluded that VisionQuest staffers engaged in “physical and psychological intimidation” and “encourages the potential for physical abuse” by having its employees provoke internees into violent encounters. The armed forces subsequently severed contacts and contracts with the firm.
The company’s troubles hardly ended there. In 2007, VisionQuest’s Arizona director pleaded guilty to running cocaine across state lines. The same year, New Jersey’s Office of the Child Advocate cut off the flow of minors to one VisionQuest complex after discovering 189 escapes and 276 uses of physical restraints at the facility in one six-month span. Repeated escapes, and reports that staff had deliberately organized fights between residents, led to the shutdown of three of its facilities in Pennsylvania in 2018. Burton, for his part, has apparently lost little of his ability to offend: as recently as two years ago, he ordered staffers he overheard conversing in Spanish not to speak the language.
Yet none of these incidents seemed to impede the organization’s access to new federal dollars. Since 2016, the company has received $52.9 million in grants and loans from Washington, D.C., largely to house unaccompanied immigrant youth. The company also offers educational services through its nonprofit arm. Government records indicate that this entity, the VisionQuest Nonprofit Corporation, has previously received restricted-access federal contracts, but it is not registered with the Internal Revenue Service.
The company also appears to have a pattern of making incomplete, inaccurate, and even outright deceptive statements and claims to government officials.
In 2019, New Mexico refused to grant VisionQuest permission to open an immigrant child facility in Albuquerque after determining the company’s application included deliberately misleading information about the revocation of one of its licenses in Pennsylvania.
Last December, the firm starred in a bipartisan U.S. Senate report on oversight failures in the shelter program for unaccompanied minors. The study from the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations criticized HHS’s decision to contract with the company, given its poor record in caring for domestic youth—particularly since it opened one of its new immigrant residences in Philadelphia in the same location as a facility that Pennsylvania authorities had shut down and evacuated just a few years before.
The report also alleged that VisionQuest failed to disclose Pennsylvania’s closure of its Philadelphia facilities in its application for HHS funds, and that it had cited its “long-term, high quality work in the State of Pennsylvania” as evidence of its qualifications for the task.
The Benson facility was one of the few bright points the Subcommittee highlighted, noting that it was likely to open at full capacity despite local resistance and COVID-19-related delays. But it noted the shelter was originally slated for New Mexico.
A footnote in the report states that VisionQuest claimed to the Subcommittee that it abandoned this plan after lawmakers in the Land of Enchantment moved to ban the opening of private detention centers in their state. In fact, as Contento acknowledged in his recent interview with azfamily.com, this was the same facility slated for Albuquerque that had its license denied over misleading statements in its application.
A Senate staffer confirmed to The Daily Beast that the explanation for the relocation to Benson noted in the report was the only one VisionQuest provided, meaning the company seems to have deliberately omitted the true reason for the move.
“The footnote represents what VisionQuest stated to the Subcommittee staff regarding the choice to relocate from New Mexico to Arizona,” said Emily Benavides, Communications Director for Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), who chaired the Subcommittee at the time. “The bipartisan Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations gave VisionQuest multiple opportunities to be forthcoming as we drafted the December 2020 report, including the opportunity to review the portions of the report relevant to VisionQuest prior to publication.”
In response to the company’s struggles to open facilities, the report noted HHS had sought to restrict VisionQuest’s access to some of the millions in grant funds it had been awarded, and had even tried to claw back some dollars. HHS did not respond to questions about the status of these efforts.
Government records show the federal allowance for the Benson project began as a $2.8 million award in July 2019—but, with the most recent revision in January, the outlay has swelled to almost $8.6 million.
The Benson council meeting served as a kind of mea culpa for VisionQuest, whose representatives apologized for opening a migrant facility without telling residents. “My question for you real quick… did you not think maybe you should come into this community and talk to us prior to doing this?” one woman asked. “This is a small town, this isn’t a big city. You know how small towns are, right? People see things, people talk.”
“You are 100 percent right. We are owning it, and we should have done it, and we apologize for that,” replied VisionQuest program director Pamela Merino. She later added, “That’s why we’re here today, so you can get to know us, so you can listen to what we have to say. Because we do believe that we owe that to you right now.”
“I would like to echo the same; we absolutely should have,” said Keller, VisionQuest’s chief operations officer.
The unidentified woman replied, “If you really are trying to do something good and really help people in need, why not reach out to the people in this community and ask them if they want to be a part of that, openly, instead of just sneaking in?”
Later in the meeting, Keller appeared to shift blame to the landlord, telling the room that he handled all the city permits for the property. “We had Jarrett [Reidhead] who was finding buildings, we have other buildings with him, and he knows exactly what we were doing,” Keller told Benson residents.
The meeting also provided a glimpse into VisionQuest's operations. Keller said the company’s contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement allows them to keep up to 48 “low risk” migrant boys—meaning the children have no criminal history or major mental health issues—at the former hotel for two weeks to 30 days before transporting them to their sponsors elsewhere in the country. (The average stay for an unaccompanied child in HHS care was 37 days at the end of February, the agency recently stated.)
When a man asked how much money VisionQuest was receiving to shelter the immigrant kids, Keller didn’t have a number. “I couldn’t even tell you how much we’re getting paid,” she said. “We have a budget that gets negotiated through the Office of Refugee Resettlement that has line items for everything that’s an allowable cost.”
“The next time you guys come here and represent yourself, you need to be more prepared and have numbers instead of BS,” the man said. “All you do is you come in and aggravate a community, because you don’t have the answers.”
Someone later asked how long VisionQuest would stay in Benson.
Keller said, “I don’t know.”