This editorial was first published in the The MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Massachusetts), a sister GateHouse Media publication. Guest editorials don't necessarily reflect the Daily Messenger's opinions.

 

It’s difficult to contemplate just how much good the federal government could do with a billion dollars. It certainly could help fund more than a handful of schools or perhaps provide people from displaced industries with substantial job training. Perhaps it could offer a bit of debt relief to struggling individuals, or even provide a one-time tax refund.

One thing the government should not be spending a billion dollars on, however, is warehousing children. And yet, that is exactly what it costs the federal government each year to take care of the approximately 11,800 children — from infants to 17-year-olds — currently in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services. This translates to more than $84,000 a year per child to house them, a windfall that benefits a small handful of powerful interests. Equally disturbing is the fact that those numbers are poised to do nothing but increase under the policies of the Trump administration.

A recent Associated Press report indicates there has been a steady increase in money spent to house children during the past decade, jumping from $74.5 million in 2007 to $958 million last year. The AP found that the children — who run the gamut of youthful offenders, unaccompanied child immigrants and, more recently, children separated from their parents who crossed the U.S. border seeking asylum or entered the country illegally — are held in almost 90 facilities, including, in some cases, tents, spread across 15 states. Private contractors are gearing up for an additional $500 million or so worth of bids to run the facilities that were made in April. Another round is expected in October.

Several companies have done quite well profiting from the misery of others. Southwest Key has received just shy of $1.4 billion during the past 10 years. Baptist Child & Family Services is not far behind at $942 million during the same period. Then there is Educational Services. Based out of Texas, the company scored $72 million in government contracts in 2017 alone. The company was recently forced to close after issues surfaced about the conditions of the shelters it operated.

Interestingly, these same religious and for-profit agencies once provided housing for at-risk youth, generated by the nation’s court systems. When the Obama administration signaled that it was moving away from the use of private contractors for the country’s prison system, these enterprising companies decided to take advantage of the changing tides of public anger and shifted their focus to helping to incarcerate children brought to the U.S. illegally.

There are those who will argue that the fault lies not within the system itself, but rather with the parents who either brought these children here illegally or who allowed their children to travel unaccompanied to the United States. Assigning blame, however, does not indemnify our government in terms of responsibility for its actions once the children arrive here.

Trump argues this strong-arm approach will ultimately save money, as it will serve as a powerful deterrent for those considering entering the country illegally. The numbers, however, indicate that Trump’s version of logic does not add up. Once again, the cost has been increasing steadily for a decade. During that time, we have been incarcerating more children rather than reducing the number.

Then there is the human cost. Trump’s own State Department recently issued a report that condemned the very idea of warehousing children, stating in part, “Removal of a child from the family should only be considered as a temporary, last resort. Studies have found that both private and government-run residential institutions for children, or places such as orphanages and psychiatric wards that do not offer a family-based setting, cannot replicate the emotional companionship and attention found in family environments that are prerequisites to healthy cognitive development.”

Trump quickly realized the political cost of separating children from their parents at the border and reversed course. The public should be equally outraged by the expansion of this draconian approach and demand that it end. The fact that these children have been separated from their families at all is a tragedy; the fact that we are underwriting this unconscionable behavior is obscene.