TOPEKA — The Villages, a Topeka group home that in the past has housed immigrant children, is now home to some minors who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border, officials confirmed Thursday.
Children in the care of U.S. government's Office of Refugee Resettlement have been housed at the Villages group home on the west outskirts of Topeka, Villages president Joseph Wittrock said Thursday in a statement. It's unclear how many of those children came to Kansas after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April announced a "zero tolerance" policy toward people who enter the United States illegally. The policy caused a spike in the number of family separations at the U.S. border as parents are housed in separate federal facilities.
"The Villages is here to help the unaccompanied children, to support the unaccompanied children, to make their experience with us a bright spot in an otherwise dark path that preceded their need for our help," Wittrock said in a statement.
Sylvia Crawford, Villages executive director, wouldn't answer questions about the number of unaccompanied children the organization cares for. She referred questions about the children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That office didn't return inquiries Thursday afternoon.
A nonprofit that for more than 50 years has provided a group-home setting for children, the Villages sits on about 400 acres in a rural setting just west of S.W. 10th and Urish Road. The space allows children to interact with nature under the guidance of staff members.
The Villages has cared for immigrant children since before the "zero tolerance" policy.
In 2017 the facility contracted with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program, according to a federal database. Through the program, the Villages received more than $2.6 million in fiscal year 2017 and more than $3.2 million in fiscal year 2018, including a $2.16 administrative supplement this May. The "zero-tolerance" immigration policy began in April.
The organization sought a bilingual clinician and a bilingual youth care worker, according to documents on its website.
"We have bilingual staff in all of the direct care job categories including youth care staff, case managers and mental health clinicians, so all of the children are able to communicate in their primary language," Crawford said.
Taylor Forrest, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Children and Families, said any immigrant child separated from their family at the border is not in the state's care.
"The children that are being separated from their parents at the border are in the custody of the federal government, and as such, are not, and would not, be placed in DCF custody," she said. "Therefore, if children are placed in Kansas, they are direct placements through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement."
An editorial published Wednesday by the Kansas City Star revealed children in their teens — and perhaps as young as 6 — were housed at the Villages. According to the Star, the Villages is taking a low-profile approach to its arrangement with the federal government through which the children from Central American countries are being housed at the facility.
Crawford confirmed to the the Star that her organization has received children who have been separated from their parents, noting the agency's top priority is the safety of the children.
Children in the Villages' care have come from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, as well several states and many Kansas cities, Wittrock said.
"There is no secret — The Villages is proud of our heritage and history of success of helping children in need, irrespective of background or circumstance," he said.
The Villages was founded in 1964 by Karl Menninger and a group home opened in 1969.
Rep. Lynn Jenkins, in a statement provided by spokesman Lee Modesitt, said the Villages "has a good reputation within the community" for caring for children.
"While asylum seeking children will always need to be cared for, this situation further highlights the urgent need to pass immigration reform that strengthens border security and transitions to a merit based immigration system," the statement read.
House members are expected to vote on an immigration bill this week. The Republican-run House rejected a conservative measure, which offered no path to citizenship for young "Dreamer" immigrants and would have made it harder for immigrant citizens to bring relatives to the U.S Thursday afternoon. A compromise was negotiated between GOP conservative and moderate factions, but voting was delayed until Friday, according The Associated Press.
Though President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed an executive order putting an end to the policy of separating families seeking entry into the United States at the southern border, it was unknown when children at the Villages would be reunited with their parents. Wittrock said there is no time frame for how quickly an unaccompanied child must be reunited, but the organization works to reunite the children with their family or a qualified sponsor "as soon as it is possible to do so in a safe manner."
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that nearly 2,000 children had been taken from their parents since Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy, which directs Homeland Security officials to refer all cases of illegal entry into the United States for prosecution. The policy sparked outrage from church groups, human rights advocates and some lawmakers who sharply criticized the policy, calling it inhumane.