Controversial Philadelphia Facility VisionQuest Could House 60 Undocumented Minors

The minors, all boys between the ages of 12 and 17, arrived unaccompanied by adults during their attempted crossings.

A controversial residential care facility on Old York Road in North Philadelphia could soon house up to 60 undocumented young people who attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

The minors, all boys between the ages of 12 and 17, arrived unaccompanied by adults during their attempted crossings. They would be sent to Philadelphia’s VisionQuest facility from other shelters in the U.S.

VisionQuest confirmed its contract with the federal government earlier this month.

But the Arizona-based agency has long history of abuse and violations, including the deaths of young people under their watch. Local advocates worry what that could mean for the new arrivals.

“VisionQuest has a very dangerous history,” Erika Almiron, executive director for community advocacy group Juntos, said. It “operated boot camps in the ‘90s and 2000s where young people died under their watch.”

Juntos organized a demonstration scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday to denounce the transportation of undocumented youth to VisionQuest's Philadelphia facility.

The controversies surrounding Vision Quest date back much further. A 1987 report by the Rand Corporation found that “the treatment methods used by VisionQuest were unorthodox” and that “the activities engaged in by the youths posed unnecessary risks to their health and safety.”

In 1984, California’s San Diego County suspended placements in VisionQuest for one year after a youth died at one of their facilities. During its evaluation, the San Diego Probation Department found instances of physical confrontations by staff; health, safety, and licensing problems and unresolved litigation involving previous deaths in the program.

Many of those issues continued through the following decades. In 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice documented more instances of physical and mental abuse at VisionQuests’s Franklin, Pennsylvania, campus. Young residents said staffers pulled their hair, used harsh restraints, choked youth and slammed them into walls.

At the end of 2017, VisionQuest permanently closed one of its local facilities. A representative for the company said, at time, that the reason was financial, but Philadelphia Councilwoman Helen Gym indicated a far more nefarious undercurrent.

“They failed our children,” Gym said. “Their problems all across the country, which include multiple deaths of children in their care, complaints of child abuse, and other appalling violations, have been well documented.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney also appears worried about housing undocumented youth in Philadelphia, a so-called sanctuary city. 

“The mayor continues to be concerned about whether the proposed use is lawful at the site," a spokesman from Kenney's office said. "City officials will continue their due diligence to determine whether such a use is permissible. Of course, should the proposed use be deemed inconsistent with the lawful use, the city intends to fully enforce the law.”

Founded in Tuscon in 1973, VisionQuest expanded to Pennsylvania in 1980. It provides intervention services to at-risk youth and families in six states including Pennsylvania and Delaware, according to its website. Services include residential programs, community-based programs, mental health and substance abuse services, and functional family therapy. The organization’s programs are also offered in Arizona, Florida, Texas and Maryland.

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