Philadelphia Judge Opens Door for Dozens of Undocumented Youth to Be Housed at Controversial Facility VisionQuest

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

A Philadelphia judge opened the door for some 60 undocumented minors to be housed in a controversial residential care facility on Old York Road. 

The ruling, issued Thursday by Common Pleas Judge Paula Patrick, green-lit Arizona-based VisionQuest to transfer dozens of boys between the ages of 12 and 17 to Philly despite concerns from the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustments that the facility did not have the appropriate permits to operate.

Judge Patrick ruled that the youth waiting to be transferred to North Philadelphia would be "irreparably harmed" by further delay and there would be "no harm to the public" resulting from their occupancy.

Plans for the facility have been thwarted since earlier this year.

VisionQuest intended to transfer the youth in February, but the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections intervened in January, according to court records. It argued that VisionQuest required a different permit to operate as a facility for children detained by the federal government. 

Judge Patrick rejected that argument, instead ruling that VisionQuest had already been serving as a "group home" for youth since 2010, provided that the minors were not under in the delinquent justice system. 

As a result, she reasoned, VisionQuest may house children under the age of 18 "who have no lawful immigration status in the U.S." or legal guardians living in the country.

“We disagree with the Court’s ruling," city spokesman Mike Dunn said in a statement. "The City stands by our contention that Visionquest’s proposed use of 5210 Old York Road is disallowed under its 2010 zoning permit, a position upheld by the Zoning Board of Adjustment."

Dunn added that the city is reviewing the court's decision and will "make a decision on how to proceed in the coming days.”

VisionQuest did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

The agency has a standing contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement to operate an Unaccompanied Alien Children Program shelter, according to court records. 

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

"The court's decision to allow this for-profit business to open a detention center in our city is appalling," Miguel Andrade, spokesperson for the immigrant advocacy group Juntos, said in a statement. "They are dismissing the dozens of cases of abuse by VisionQuest, as well as their own employees, who say this center shouldn't open."

The controversies surrounding VisionQuest date back decades. 

Most recently in 2017, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services ended its contract with VisionQuest after allegations of violence and abuse.

Prior to that, in 1987, a 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.”

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.

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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