The war between Texas Governor Greg Abbott and the Biden administration is escalating. On Monday, a lawyer for the Department of Health and Human Services threatened legal action against the state of Texas if Abbott does not back down from his plan to de-license Texas shelters housing migrant children on behalf of HHS. Approximately 4,000 children are currently housed in 52 state-licensed shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. If Abbott makes good on his promise to revoke their accreditation, those children would be forced back into already overcrowded emergency shelters that lack the resources and training to care for them.
“Although we prefer to resolve this matter amicably, in light of the legal issues outlined above, HHS is consulting the U.S. Department of Justice and intends to pursue whatever appropriate legal action is necessary to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the vulnerable youth that Congress entrusted to ORR,” Paul Rodriguez, deputy general counsel for HHS wrote in the letter, addressed to Abbott, and two other officials.
The Texas governor announced his intention to revoke the state licenses for 52 ORR shelters on May 31, just a few weeks after he held a press conference outside a San Antonio emergency shelter — a facility, Abbott said, he’d received serious complaints about, including accusations of sexual abuse and dangerous conditions. (A Bexar County judge later dismissed Abbott’s allegations against the facility as “completely false.”)
In his proclamation, Abbott cited concerns about Texas’ foster care system, writing, “The unabated influx of individuals resulting from federal government policies threatens to negatively impact state-licensed residential facilities, including those that serve Texas children in foster care.”
Abbott’s sentiment rings somewhat hollow, though, as the governor is presently the plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit alleging his administration ignored explicit warnings that Texas’ foster care system was placing children in dangerous situations. A court-appointed monitor found that 23 children have died in foster care in the state since 2019 — deaths attributed to causes including abuse, suicide, and medical neglect. One child was hit by a car, another drowned, another was beaten to death, and a 15-year-old girl was found murdered on the side of a road. According to the report, one San Antonio foster care facility was cited for failing to meet the state’s standards at least 239 times between 2016 to 2020 — court monitors reported instances of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect at the center.
According to recent filings in the suit, MD v. Abbott — MD refers to a class of Texas children in long-term foster care — officials in the Department of Family and Protective Services, Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and in Abbott’s own office were aware children were being illegally housed in an unlicensed foster care facility, yet they failed to pass the information on to court-appointed monitors.
The federal government is asking Texas to confirm in writing by Friday, June 11 that Abbott seriously intends to go through with his threat to revoke the facilities’ licenses. In the letter, Rodriguez makes clear the fact that it is bound by both federal law and a court order to care for the unaccompanied children who have crossed the border seeking asylum in the U.S. “Absent an understanding with Texas by June 11 that ensures ORR’s grantees will be able to retain their licenses subject to the same licensing standards as other child-care facilities operating in Texas, HHS will be prepared to pursue all available relief,” Rodriguez wrote.
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.