Hundreds rallied Sunday, June 24, 2018, at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in Tornillo, Texas, to demand an end to the separation of children and the detention of immigrant families.
Gaby Velasquez/Special to the El Paso Times
AUSTIN — Texas officials have opened an investigation into the death of a toddler who reportedly died after being released from an immigrant detention center in South Texas.
The child’s death was publicized earlier this month by the American Immigration Lawyers Association but details, including the child’s name and cause of death, were not made public.
Lawyers representing the toddler’s family contacted state officials on Thursday to share information about the child, hours after a top state official publicly called for the details to be shared.
“I need to know the name of that child so we can investigate thoroughly,” said Hank Whitman, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, during a legislative hearing at the state Capitol.
Whitman said the department had made repeated efforts to contact the family’s lawyers and learn information about the child in order to investigate.
The Department of Family and Protective Services is responsible for investigating allegations of abuse and neglect against a child, which includes immigrant children being housed at dozens of residential facilities across the state.
The facilities have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, due to the influx of migrant children being taken into government custody after being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In addition to the latest investigation into the toddler’s death, the department has conducted 51 investigations between December and July into allegations of abuse and neglect at facilities that contract with the federal government to house immigrant minors.
Nine investigations are still pending and the others were determined unfounded, according to Whitman.
When reports of the toddler’s death first surfaced, federal officials denied the claim and said that no child had died in their custody. They also said they were unable to investigate the claim further without the child’s name or other personal information.
“Without a name or more specific information, we are unable to research this allegation,” ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said in a statement to the Washington Post earlier this month. “That doesn’t make the allegation true, just impossible to refute.”
State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, asked the House Human Services Committee to hold a public hearing to discuss the state’s ongoing involvement in housing immigrant children in light of the toddler’s death and abuse allegations that have surfaced in shelters in other parts of the state.
During Thursday’s hearing, Alvarado asked state officials to stop issuing licenses for companies to operate residential shelters until an investigation into the toddler’s death is completed. There are currently four pending applications to establish such shelters, including in Houston, Los Fresnos and San Benito County.
Victoria Ford, the interim chief operating officer at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said the state is required by law to issue licenses to entities who file the appropriate paperwork and meet all of the requirements for operating a shelter.
Madlin Mekelburg is a reporter with the USA Today Network Austin Bureau; she may be reached at 512-479-6606; firstname.lastname@example.org; @madlinbmek on Twitter.
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