M. Terry / SFVS

A variety of advocates, politicians and residents denounced the intent to open and operate a migrant children’s detention center in Arleta.

On Monday, Jan. 6 – Three Kings Day — a protest was held in front of the property on Woodman Avenue in Arleta that the company VisionQuest has lobbied to be utilized as a for-profit detention center for migrant children. The building was previously an assisted living facility.

On Three Kings Day a final gift is traditionally given, and residents, including local activists chose the holiday as an appropriate day to hold their protest. The group wrote: “Gifts not Jail for Immigrant Children,” on its press information. Arleta, a largely Latino community is located in the Northeast San Fernando Valley

As previously reported in the San Fernando Valley Sun/El, the federal government in July awarded VisionQuest $25 million in four grants over the next three years to house hundreds of unaccompanied minors including children separated from their families at the border in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

The company, according to its website, provided intervention and treatment programs for at risk youth from Pennsylvania to California and worked with migrant populations in the 1980s when they were awarded contracts for exiled Cuban refugees. The company describes itself as committed to providing highly successful intervention services that adhere to the highest professional standards.

However, while VisionQuest has been in the business of working with troubled youth, the company has its own troubled past and several scandals for its treatment of children that have included abuse and mistreatment allegations.

As reported by the Center for Investigative Journalism in Philadelphia, city officials ended a contract with VisionQuest in 2017 after state inspection records obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that staff members had choked, slapped and injured children.

In 1994, as reported by the Associated Press, the US Department of Justice documented episodes of physical and mental abuse that included throwing children against the wall at VisionQuest’s Franklin, PA campus.

Over recent years, the company has fallen into debt but has found a financial lifeline by putting their hat in the ring to run child migrant detention centers.

VisionQuest has received grant money to build two detention center locations in Southern California. However, AB 32 — a bill to phase out the use of all private, for-profit prisons, including immigration detention centers — was signed by Gov. Newsom in October last year and went into effect January 1, 2020. Similarly, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a motion that indicated private detention centers were “not welcome in the city.”

However, ICE, as a federal agency, has continued to push for detention centers in California. One private detention center, GEO Group, filed a lawsuit challenging the California ban. The lawsuit was filed at the end of last year, 10 days after the federal government signed contracts totaling nearly $6.5 billion dollars for GEO Group and two other companies that currently run California’s four private for-profit immigration detention centers. ICE continued to accept bids for several detention centers after Newsom had signed the bill. LA Council President Nury Martinez, whose district includes Arleta and much of the San Fernando Valley, has introduced a motion to stop VisionQuest from going forward with their intention to place a detention center in Arleta.

It is unclear how VisionQuest was able to be approved for a grant given a negative track record with documented incidents of abuse or if it can legally be within its rights to open up a detention facility center in Arleta or elsewhere, if their application was accepted and approved before the state ban went into effect. ICE called for applications for locations that would be “turnkey.”

Calls to VisionQuest were not returned by press time. An attempt was made to leave a message, but the recorded voice said the mail box was full.

Nancy Burawski, a teacher at LAUSD, participated in Monday’s protest and said she found the Arleta location especially offensive where immigrant children would be walking to school past a building that is housing other immigrant children.

“It’s just horrible. It’s gonna be a prison for kids and it’s especially offensive because it’s in an immigrant community,” Burawski said, adding the location would be a “slap in the face” to those who call the Arleta neighborhood their home.

“This is enough,” said Trini Rodriguez, a founder of Tia Chucha’s cultural center in Sylmar. “Not in our neighborhood.”

Congressman Tony Cardenas in a statement released from his office said he opposed a detention center opening in his district.

“We have seen the harmful and traumatizing effects caused by the cruel and unsafe conditions at detention facilities, and I will continue fighting against the Trump administration’s inhuman immigration policies. I will not allow a holding facility to open up in my backyard that would put more children in cages,” the statement said.

Cardenas referenced a recent study by the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, which “makes clear that detention centers are unable to meet the mental health needs of children experiencing significant trauma.” He said he sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, and said the Trump administration keeps everything to themselves and cages children without answering to the public.

Mayra Veronica Todd attended the protest with her two granddaughters who migrated from Guatemala and spoke about the personal impact on her family.

She said her granddaughters were held at a detention center in Texas and officers asked them what they were doing there and why they didn’t stay in their own country. One of her granddaughters told the media they were only given food once a day and food was thrown at them. Todd said the two girls continue to struggle with what they went through.