Politics

Felony drug defendant tells shocked Miami judge: I work caring for kids seized at border

Unaccompanied immigrant children play soccer at Homestead facility

A video shot by Miami Herald reporter Douglas Hanks shows unaccompanied immigrant children playing soccer at a federally run shelter in Homestead.
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A video shot by Miami Herald reporter Douglas Hanks shows unaccompanied immigrant children playing soccer at a federally run shelter in Homestead.

During the day, Franky Santos attends meetings for people trying to get clean, occasionally performs community service, and appears regularly before the Miami judge who oversees the county's Drug Court.

At night, he's a caregiver for immigrant children being held at a Homestead shelter.

As controversy continues to swirl over the Trump administration's immigration policy — even after it walked back a decision to separate undocumented immigrant children from their parents and house them in shelters — a new question looms: Who's minding the kids?

Though children's advocates and human rights groups have criticized the administration's earlier decision to house even small children in shelters — some of which include chain-link fencing likened to cages — Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other administration officials have insisted that the youngsters are well-cared for.

In Homestead, it turns out, some of the youngsters are, or were, being cared for by a 38-year-old man who is in Miami-Dade's Drug Court facing pending felony drug possession charges.

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The entrance for the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Monday, June 18, 2018. Ellis Rua erua@MiamiHerald.com

On Monday, Franky Santos appeared before Circuit Judge Jeri B. Cohen, who is overseeing his case in drug court. Santos told the judge he had just been hired as a "lead youth care worker" at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' compound in Homestead. "I watch over the children," he said, to "make sure they don't sneak off or go anywhere where they're not supposed to."

The judge, who had presided over child welfare cases for more than a decade, appeared to be surprised at Santos' new job. "People with open criminal cases should not be watching children that we have in holding facilities in our country," she said. "I think it's a disgrace."

"I'm just shocked, although I shouldn't be," she added.

Santos said he works at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, a 1,000-bed center for children who have entered the U.S. without permission. The shelter was shuttered last year when the number of unaccompanied youths being held there declined. But it was reopened in recent weeks just as the Trump administration announced it would hold children separately from their families if the parents faced criminal prosecution for illegal entry.

The administration's decision, reversed Wednesday, to separate children from their parents drew harsh rebukes from civil rights groups and children's advocates, especially after it was revealed that children at a Texas shelter were being housed within chain-link fencing that critics said resembled cages.

George Sheldon, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Children & Families who now heads Miami's private foster care agency, Our Kids, called the policy "obscene."

"There's no word I can use to describe what I think is an extremely inhumane policy," Sheldon added.

Said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist: "This is indefensible. Stunning and disappointing, to say the least."

"I know the president signed what appears to be a reversal, but there are a lot of problems still left hanging, sadly," the St. Petersburg Democrat said Thursday. "Where are the 2,300 children that were already removed, and how will they be returned. And, obviously, some of the employees watching them may be questionable. It's one thing after another after another. When you launch a bad policy, it only gets worse. This is a nightmare for our country, but, most importantly, for these children."

The administration had defended the practice, and leaders at the Justice Department, Homeland Security and elsewhere insisted youngsters were well-cared for.

"It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of — don't believe the press," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the National Sheriff's Association, while addressing reports of substandard treatment of minors.

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Unaccompanied undocumented children at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children play soccer on Monday, June 18, 2018. Ellis Rua erua@MiamiHerald.com

And although the Trump administration says it will no longer separate children from their parents at the border, immigrant advocates insist it will be difficult to reunify the more than 2,000 children who already are held in shelters after being removed from their families.

It's impossible to say whether the private company that operates the Homestead shelter was aware of Santos' legal troubles and hired him anyway — as Santos claimed in court — or failed to perform a background check. Comprehensive Health Services Inc., which operates the Homestead shelter under contract with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, declined to comment, referring questions to HHS.

A spokesman for HHS, which oversees the youth shelters, did not reply to requests from the Miami Herald to discuss the Homestead shelter.

Sheldon oversaw the development of shelters for immigrant children beginning in 2012, when he was assistant secretary at the U.S. Administration for Children & Families at HHS under the Obama administration. He said the contracts his agency inked required providers to vet the men and woman who were in caregiver roles with children.

"This raises the question of how good their background screening is," Sheldon said. "There have got to be federal regulations in that contract."

Comprehensive Health Services, which is one of the largest providers of workforce medical services, has been criticized in the past for its performance while under contract with U.S. government agencies.

Last year, the Justice Department announced CHS had agreed to pay the U.S. government $3.8 million to settle a complaint under the False Claims Act that it had double-billed and mischarged the Internal Revenue Service as part of a contract to provide medical services to IRS criminal investigation agents. The Justice Department said CHS double-billed for vision screenings, electrocardiograms and blood tests between April 2009 and April 2014.

"Businesses that knowingly overcharge the government should be held accountable and penalized," then-U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said. The top federal prosecutor in Baltimore at the time, Rosenstein now is deputy attorney general.

In 2012, an Arkansas man and woman sued a subsidiary of CHS, claiming they'd been fired by the company after they complained that the subsidiary had provided "substandard care" to personnel at Sather Air Force Base, now known as Baghdad Diplomatic Support Hospital, in Iraq as part of a contract with the U.S. State Department. In their lawsuit, the two claimed a man died after a "critical care practitioner" botched the insertion of a breathing tube. The lawsuit was later settled.

In August of last year, Santos was pulled over for speeding in Key Largo when an officer smelled what he thought was marijuana in Santos' Jeep. An officer found more than 20 grams of the drug in a gym bag in Santos' trunk. Santos agreed to enter drug court, and his case was transferred to Miami-Dade County.

Other arrests included a 2008 misdemeanor marijuana charge, for which adjudication was withheld, a 2008 misdemeanor loitering charge, which was dropped, and a 2012 misdemeanor domestic battery charge, which also was dropped.

At a hearing Monday, Santos was upbeat when asked how he was doing. "I'm doing great," he said. "I just recently got a new job for the government."

Santos said he was overseeing children aged 12-17 who were detained at the U.S. border. "It's not a public thing," he said. "I'm not even really supposed to talk about it."

Training for the job consisted of "an orientation class," Santos said. "It's like a daycare," he added. "They just want you to observe the children, make sure that they're not ... acting crazy or just being rude or — they just want to keep control and make sure that they're not doing anything out of the usual." Santos said the company was aware he was facing felony drug charges when it hired him.

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A 2016 photo, provided by the federal government, of a dorm at the Homestead compound that housed hundreds of immigrant children at that time. Media have not been allowed inside the former Job Corps facility since it reopened in 2018, so it's not known if the quarters have changed. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

A representative of the county's drug court program said in court that Santos had tested positive for marijuana on Monday — not his first failed test, court records show. Santos said the test was picking up marijuana he had smoked in mid-April, but Cohen said the substance would not be detected after so many weeks.

"No, that's impossible," the judge said. "Marijuana doesn't stay in the system 60 days."

"Can you give me two weeks, and I will come up clean?" Santos asked.

"I just want you to be honest," the judge replied.

It's unclear whether Santos still has the job at the Homestead shelter; Cohen said in court he should quit and look for another job that doesn't entail caring for children.

Before concluding the hearing, Cohen offered her opinion on the government's system for overseeing kids: "The United States government should be hanging its head in shame," she said. It's "disgusting that they would hire someone with an open felony to watch children."

Herald writer Aaron Leibowitz and researcher Monika Z. Leal contributed to this report.

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