Family Services Counselor Fired After Speaking Out Against Surveillance of Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Sarah DeYoreo, who was fired from Morrison Child and Family Services, said that staff were being encouraged to act as an extension of law enforcement.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept

As a new counselor at Morrison Child and Family Services, Sarah DeYoreo would get to her office around 7 a.m. Though Morrison provides a range of services in Portland, including long-term foster care, the teens DeYoreo worked with presented unique challenges. Ranging in age from 15 to 17, they had crossed the border alone and undocumented. Most were from Central America and lacked a U.S.-based sponsor to take them in. In many cases, they had bounced from one facility to another before landing in the Pacific Northwest.

While a number of the kids Morrison is responsible for live in restrictive, high-security settings, the young people DeYoreo cared for did not. Each morning, she would bring them their breakfast, and by 8 a.m. they would be out the door, bound for class in the Portland public school system.

The rest of DeYoreo’s day would be filled with tasks one might expect from a foster care provider: cleaning rooms, doing laundry. But there were elements of DeYoreo’s job, which she began in January, that had an Orwellian flavor. Cellphones were one example. Each of the kids were given one. And while the technology gave the teenagers something in common with their counterparts living on the outside, DeYoreo and her colleagues used the devices to track their whereabouts, hourly, from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to sleep.

It didn’t stop there. Nearly every facet of the unaccompanied minors’ lives was closely monitored. As the weeks went by, DeYoreo started to feel less like the social worker she had signed on to be and more like a sanitized prison guard for kids. She began to relish her lunch breaks, when she would leave the omnipresent surveillance cameras monitoring her underground workspace for a cafe across the street. The staff was friendly, but the excursions were surreal. All around her, the people of Portland were going about their day, oblivious, it seemed, to the world inside her building.

On May 19, DeYoreo was wrapping up her shift and walking out of the office when she saw a supervisor talking to a police officer. Two boys on an approved outing had strayed far from their approved destination, waved off a call from the services center, and dumped the phones that were tracking them. It was the second escape in a matter of a few months. As DeYoreo left work that day, she thought to herself, Good for them.

It’s not that Morrison was some house of horrors, DeYoreo told The Intercept recently, not like some of the places migrant children separated from their parents were shuffled to amid the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown. “There are truly awful organizations that house unaccompanied minors,” she said. “We are not that.” On the contrary, DeYoreo said, she had seen no signs of abuse or inappropriate behavior on the part of her colleagues. They seemed genuinely invested in helping the kids they were working with. But that was just it, DeYoreo explained — even the purest intentions could not alter the fundamental relationship between the place where she worked and the kids who lived there.

“It’s a nice prison,” she said. “But it’s a prison.”

Find My Friends

Morrison is one of more than 100 facilities or programs housing unaccompanied minors in the U.S., the extension of a multibillion-dollar business built on government grants provided by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR.

In the summer of 2018, the government’s family separation policy turned the local media spotlight on Morrison specifically. The only operation of its kind in Oregon, the organization opened the doors of one its two facilities for unaccompanied minors to the press in July.

“We too have been shocked, horrified, and heartbroken by the change in policy and practice at our Southern border and it’s terrible impact on immigrant families,” Morrison said in a statement, adding that its goal is to provide services for unaccompanied youth “until more permanent solutions can be found,” and that the young people “upon request are free to leave our facilities anytime they choose.”

Days after the press tour, Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici were denied a similar visit. Soon after, a number of former Morrison employees, some describing themselves as conscientious objectors, began speaking out to criticize the organization’s operations. In an article in the Portland Mercury, multiple former Morrison employees said the organization’s second facility, known as Paso Staff Secure, where journalists were not permitted to visit, was a effectively a closed-off juvenile detention center. Marcela Cartagena, a former youth care provider, said, “When the children mentioned thoughts of suicide, or feelings of missing home, they were not allowed to go outside for weeks.”

Emma Sohriakoff, a second former Morrison youth counselor, claimed that staff at the facility were encouraged to “gather information on the youth that could be used against them.” Drew Henrie-McWilliams, Morrison’s CEO, said his organization only provides information to ORR, not law enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In a statement she read at an Occupy ICE protest, Sohriakoff rattled off several more concerning claims regarding her former employer. She later joined with other former Morrison employees and immigrant rights advocates in signing a letter calling for “an independent investigation and audit of the ethical, mental health, and systemic programming at all of Morrison Center’s Programs involving youth detained based on immigration status.”

Though she never worked at the Paso facility, and never witnessed blatantly abusive activity at Morrison, DeYoreo was nonetheless disturbed by the nature of the job she was tasked to do.

Much of her work as a so-called milieu counselor revolved around tracking kids via the phones they were given. The monitoring was facilitated by Find My Friends, an Apple app that young people in Morrison’s custody were required to download. The teens install the app and turn on its tracking feature. Their locations then appear on a map, visible to DeYoreo and her colleagues, which are in turn registered in a logbook that Morrison staff are constantly updating.

“The entire day, every 15 minutes, they’re writing down where all the kids are,” DeYoreo said. The kids, she said, “can just go into their settings and turn off the tracking, but that’s very clearly forbidden.”

Back at the facility, the minors in Morrison’s custody live in rooms where the doors can never be closed, per Morrison policy. Any sort of physical touching beyond high-fives or fist-bumps is prohibited, DeYoreo said, and requires the submission of an incident report. Though she recognized that the policy is intended to prevent incidents of physical or sexual abuse, DeYoreo came to believe that it also served — intentionally or unintentionally — to stifle any sense of connection, solidarity, or closeness among the young people or between the young people and the staff.

When the teenagers in Morrison’s custody go to bed at night, they hand over their phones. “If you’re an overnight staff, one of your duties is to check the phones,” DeYoreo explained. “It involves literally going through everything that they’ve done on their phone, all the text messages that they’ve sent, all the messenger messages that they’ve sent, anything that they’ve done, and making sure that that complies with policy,” she said, adding that counselors have the passwords to all of the apps on the devices.

Added to the monitoring of cellphones, DeYoreo found herself increasingly concerned that Morrison staff were being encouraged to act as an extension of law enforcement. When an email was circulated advising staff of signs of potential gang activity, she became particularly concerned. “It seemed like its purpose was to put staff on guard,” she said. “It’s just not a helpful conversation. It ends up basically criminalizing the kids that we’re supposedly caring for.”

With cameras everywhere inside the building, DeYoreo said the feeling of being watched was constant. “There is this general sense of paranoia because we all feel like we’re all being watched at all times, or could be watched at all times, and I think the kids feel that,” she said. “They have no privacy.”

Track, Survey, Monitor

As concerns about the nature of her job mounted, DeYoreo said conversations with her colleagues were met with mixed results. More often than not, she said, it appeared that there was a “basic refusal to actually critically talk about what we’re doing.”

Eventually, DeYoreo decided to put in her two weeks’ notice but before doing that, she would write an email to the entire Morrison staff. Though she hoped the message would open a dialogue on the role Morrison plays in immigration enforcement, with an aim of moving away from the carceral status quo, she realized that sending it could result in her firing. On Tuesday, at 10 a.m., DeYoreo sent the email.

“When I took this job in January, I was under the impression that my job as an MC would be to provide care and support to teenage youth who had recently immigrated to the United States with no accompanying parents or guardians,” she wrote. “Very quickly, however, it became clear to me that my job was largely one of enforcement and policing: to track, survey, and monitor the ‘minors’ in our care in the service of state control and power.”

DeYoreo went on to write, “If we really want to help these kids in whichever ways we can — and I believe, in spite of all the above, that there are many of us here who do want to do this — I suggest we start by being honest with them.”

In addition to sending the email to her Morrison colleagues, DeYoreo also posted the text of her message to Facebook, where it was later picked up by Propeller, a Portland-based online magazine. DeYoreo had figured that sending her email could lead to her termination. On Thursday, as she parked her bike and headed in for her first shift since sending the message, her prediction came true. Still, she does not regret her decision — in a text message shortly after her firing, DeYoreo said she felt “vindicated and strangely jubilant.”

When asked what she believes an ethical response to the thousands of unaccompanied children who cross the border each year might look like, DeYoreo admitted that she does not know. “I don’t think that I have the right answer,” she said, but, she added, “I know that this is not the right way.”

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