Young undocumented immigrants are leaving local immigrant youth shelters without authorization. But the number of reported runaways differs, depending on which government agency supplies the statistics.
This discrepancy could mask the extent of the runaway problem at local immigrant youth shelters.
Southwest Key Programs is a nonprofit that is contracted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to run three shelters for undocumented youths in El Cajon and Lemon Grove.
Many of the minors staying at these shelters were caught crossing the border illegally without a parent or guardian, or their parents were arrested and separately detained.
NBC 7 Investigates filed public record requests with El Cajon Police and the San Diego County Sheriff's Department for all calls for service and investigations at the three shelter locations.
Those records reveal that last year, shelter employees reported six runaways from its El Cajon shelters to law enforcement. But according to California’s Department of Social Services (DSS), the shelters reported just three runaways in 2017. Of note, the three runaways reported to DSS were not among the six listed by law enforcement, meaning there were at least nine runaways in 2017.
The runaway reporting discrepancy was first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Law enforcement records also show three runaways reported by the shelters in 2016. A spokesperson for DSS said the agency is still reviewing its records for 2016 to determine how many runaways were reported to the state that year.
Licensed shelters are required to report juveniles running away to the Department of Social Services within 24 hours of the incident, and then follow-up with a written report within 10 days.
In September, during a state inspection, Weston said DSS staff discussed concerns about Southwest Key meeting reporting requirements with the shelter’s Regional Executive Director and Programs Director.
NBC 7 Investigates asked Southwest Key Programs about the runaway discrepancies and reporting requirements to the state. A spokesperson told us, “When a child decides to leave us, we report that to local police, the state of California and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.”
Previously, Southwest Key Programs told NBC 7 Investigates state and federal restrictions prevent staff at the shelters from holding a child against their will if they decide to leave their facility. Staff can try to talk the juveniles into staying, but beyond that their options are limited.
Southwest Key also said employees at their shelters are required to take at least 80 hours of training regarding juveniles running away as part of their orientation, and they receive ongoing training throughout their employment.