In response to the massive border surge by youth and families from Central American countries last year, the federal government placed unaccompanied minor children in shelters like Sycamore Canyon Academy across the country. The government failed in its goal to keep the locations secret.
However it is still succeeding in keeping information about the identities and welfare of the arrivals secret in the state of Arizona. Only after months of trying, were the residents of Oracle, home of the Academy, given a brief glimpse of the operation, and the young men who are processed through it.
Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountain range in Southern Arizona, Sycamore Canyon Academy offers a tranquil setting for the male reform school type program. The addition of UACs to the reform school in an already resource strapped community raised serious concerns for residents.
The federal government’s refusal to answer even the most basic questions, and the lack of any reassurances from officials on the state level increased the level of concern. The residents’ requests for information from multiple state, county, and federal agencies about the relocation were rebuffed.
Groups as disparate as the Koch brother’s Libre Initiative to Chicanos Por La Causa shamefully fought over who could out-demonize the frightened and confused residents. But the slings and arrows from the media and special interest groups didn’t stop residents’ and their continued fight for transparency.
Other than pictures released for promotional and fundraising purposes, the UACs have remained virtually invisible.
Finally on March 24, 2015, nearly a year later, the headmaster of Sycamore, Ike Shipman allowed a small group to tour the facility. The group of five was shown only the outside of residents’ quarters, and the inside of the dining hall, classrooms, and staff conference room.
A carefully selected cadre of reform schools students accompanied the group and put their best feet forward to sell the Academy as a community asset. The young men ranging in ages from 14 to 18 were respectful and impressive as they told the tragic tales of how they got to the academy and what life skills with which they hoped to leave.
The visitors were denied any access to, or information about, the UACs. According to Shipman, the UACs continue to arrive at the academy, stay a short time, and are processed out. Each employee had to sign a confidentiality agreement with the federal government agents, and as a result, Shipman and the other staff bristled at any questions about the UACs. All they would say was that the “shelter residents” and “school residents” were kept apart from each other. According to staff, “it is a logistical nightmare” to schedule the occupants’ activities so that they don’t even cross paths as they go about their activities in the narrow canyon compound.
Dining occurs in shifts to avoid encounters, according to Shipman.
During the carefully choreographed tour, the young men from Central America could be seen playing football on a field in the distance. The UACs appeared to be, for the most part, more physically mature than the residents of the school.
Unlike the school residents, who wore uniforms, the UACs wore a variety of clothing. In the heat of an Arizona spring, the sight of one UAC running down the field in a hoodie sweat shirt left the visiting adults to wonder what sort of assets and care is given to the temporary residents.
Because, state and county officials, other than Babeu, don’t seem to be curious or even remotely interested in the welfare of the UACs, it is unlikely that anyone will independently confirm Shipman’s claims.
Their lack of interest on all levels is astonishing to many. Sycamore Canyon is licensed though the state, but other than an inspection by the fire department, the state has shown no interest in the UACs’ care. But it is not just the UACs’ welfare that seems to be ignored. When asked about the County’s role in ensuring that the kitchen facilities meet local food preparation standards, the County Health inspector denied that the facility had a working kitchen.
However, while standing in the dining hall with a fully functional kitchen in sight, Shipman said, “We eat a lot of chicken here.” According to Shipman, the federal government is stingy with funding for milk and other staples, but the UACs get what they need. And growing young men need a lot says Shipman. Residents are given approximately 4500 calories a day. Shipman says that he believes they have worked out a diet that seems to serve the residents, as evidenced by the fact that overweight kids generally leave having lost weight, and underweight kids leave in better shape than when they arrived.
Despite the fact that contracts for the settlement of unaccompanied minor children (UAC) were being drawn up for shelters in the state of Arizona as early as April 2014, their arrival in late June and July 2014, was portrayed by then Governor Jan Brewer as a surprise.
While it is unclear whether Brewer was informed by her staff that the arrivals were on their way, the residents of communities in which UACs were to be sheltered, were kept completely in the dark. Had it not been for the heads up given to the neighbors of Sycamore Academy by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, the addition to their community might have gone unnoticed.
According to sources, personnel from the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office were invited, and then uninvited by Sycamore staff to join residents on the tour.
Last year, after the state of Arizona was shaken, when it was discovered that Child Protective Services had failed to investigate thousands of reports of abuse and neglect, the Governor finally leapt into action and created a whole new department with millions in funding.
That scandal should have made Arizona officials more sensitive to cracks in the child care system and its invisible minors. Instead, even those whose job directly involves the health and welfare of children like the Arizona Department of Education seem uninterested as they funnel thousands of dollars in milk money to shelter providers.
“For me, the intransigence of the Obama administration and its involvement in this issue, is typical of the attitude and Modus Operandi that it has exhibited for the past 6 plus years. When we residents in the Oracle area sought for clarification of a serious dilemma for our country and more important, to our community, we were ignored and derided for being concerned for our families and friends. Lies and distortions were administered freely and through every conceivable medium available from our federal government – down to the County government. Even our local sheriff, the most powerful law enforcement entity in the County, had no knowledge of what was transpiring with this issue. And from the County supervisor, we were derided, as he, Pete Rios, sang the same ole’ song, that the federal government was purporting to be factual. Ninety percent of which, has been proven to be distorted at best, and outright lies worst,” said Ron Thompson, the coordinator of the Oracle Neighborhood Watch.
Thompson echoed the frustration of many in the community when the concluded, “Finally, after several months, a group of residents, realizing that they couldn’t count on their local County supervisor to help, took it upon themselves to contact the Sycamore Canyon authorities, and after many letters, emails, phone calls, etc., we finally arranged a meeting.”
Both Thompson, and community leader Bob Skiba, who were generally positive about what they had been allowed to see of the facility and its staff, believe that the information provided was inadequate. The two men believe that the public is entitled to more information about Arizona’s invisible visitors.