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License to open shelter hits snag

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A planned Albuquerque shelter for undocumented immigrant children is now in question after the state rejected its application, alleging the for-profit operator had purposefully withheld details about violations at one of its other facilities.

New Mexico’s child welfare agency denied VisionQuest Ltd.’s initial application to open the temporary shelter for boys who entered the U.S. without their parents, saying the company provided intentionally misleading information while pursuing a state license.

In an Aug. 28 letter to VisionQuest, a New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department official said the company had failed to accurately describe why the state of Pennsylvania had in 2015 temporarily revoked a license at one of the company’s living units for at-risk kids near Gettysburg.

A VisionQuest spokeswoman said Friday that the company intends to provide additional documentation to the state and is concerned that CYFD considered incomplete information “more than a simple omission.”

The denial letter mentions several problems with the VisionQuest facility as outlined in an October 2015 license revocation report from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, including:

• An instance in which a “staff member bent the arm of a child behind the child’s back and in an upward position because the child refused to complete chores,” causing the child pain;

• Staff telling a child who showed distressed breathing and asked for Mucinex that it was a cold and to drink water. The child was taken to the emergency room the following morning and admitted to the hospital for pneumonia; and

• 16 documented medication errors involving five clients.

The CYFD letter also cites several violations from a Sept. 22, 2015, inspection summary at the Pennsylvania facility, including a child being dragged out of bed by the arms, exposing the child’s underwear to at least one other child; delays completing intake protocols such as a client’s health examination and a child’s health/safety assessment; and four staff members giving medication without having completed the necessary training.

“Regulatory compliance history information provided by VisionQuest on 8-14-19 does not accurately reflect the health, safety, and welfare violations of the licensure revocation and survey reports,” says the denial letter signed by Lillian Rainer, chief of CYFD’s Licensing and Certification Authority Bureau.

“This, in addition to VisionQuest not providing compliance history reports until LCA made two requests is considered to be purposeful or intentional misrepresentation of information on documents provided to LCA,” Rainer wrote in the letter obtained by the Journal through a public records request. That combined with a history of licensure revocation “are grounds for denial of initial application for license” under state code, she added.

VisionQuest had in documents submitted earlier this month to CYFD summarized the issues that led to its temporary revocation as: “medical errors documentation missing; staff not timely and properly diagnosing a youth ultimately determined to be suffering from pneumonia; staff not properly trained to dispense medication; two youth rights violation (sic) one being improper emergency safety physical intervention and two being not treating a youth with fairness, dignity and respect.”

It subsequently provided CYFD with the revocation documents from the state of Pennsylvania.

If the company appeals the denial, it would get a hearing within 30 days, according to state code. It could also appeal and instead request an informal resolution conference to show how it plans to “remedy deficiencies.”

A VisionQuest spokesman said Friday morning the company plans to pursue the informal resolution process.

“We were surprised that our pre-approval was denied, and certainly concerned that incomplete information was considered by CYFD to be a more than a simple omission,” Amanda Burton said in a statement. “We are requesting an informational resolution conference, where we will provide all information requested in addition to all current licenses and inspections. I appreciate CYFD’s diligence; we will provide all documentation necessary to get these refugee children safe shelter and social services as soon as possible.”

Tucson-based VisionQuest specializes in programs for at-risk youths, including residential facilities, and currently has operations in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas.

It is seeking a New Mexico license to shelter up to 60 boys ages 11 to 17 who entered the country without a legal guardian and who are now in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The company has a $2.9 million federal award to provide residential shelter for unaccompanied minors in New Mexico, online HHS records show.

The company has identified a site – a currently vacant building on Central Avenue, a few blocks west of the University of New Mexico – and has begun alerting neighbors of its plan to establish the shelter.

Burton said last week it is not detention center, saying in an email to the Journal the contract is “to provide temporary residential, medical and educational services to unaccompanied minors.”

But VisionQuest has had some high-profile issues at its facilities, eliciting concern from some local advocacy groups.

In 2017, it shut down a juvenile-justice center in Philadelphia. VisionQuest fired at least three staff members from that facility over a six-year period for hitting or physically handling children, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported based on state records.

Immigrants rights’ advocates on Friday cheered the state’s decision.

“Today we applaud CYFD’s diligent work inspecting VisionQuest’s past after they submitted an initial application to open an immigrant child detention center in the heart of Albuquerque,” Felipe Rodriguez of the New Mexico Dream Team said in a statement. “Since we first learned of this proposed project, hundreds of people all across the city have been organizing and mobilizing to stop this inhumane project that profits from the detention of families and children seeking a better life.”

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