LAWTON — Federal officials on Thursday allowed reporters to tour the military barracks at Fort Sill, where more than 1,000 unaccompanied immigrant children are being housed.
A series of three tours Thursday were the first time the media have been given access to the facilities.
The children are part of an influx of Central Americans who have crossed the southern U.S. border since October. The minors in U.S. custody have been split between three shelters — one in Texas, another in California and at Fort Sill — where they will stay until they are placed with a sponsor or family member in the U.S.
Members of the media were guided through the barracks by officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, assisted by staff from Baptist Child and Family Services, the San Antonio nonprofit contracted to provide services for the children.
The tours came with heavy restrictions. Reporters were not allowed to take pictures or recordings of any type, interact with the children, or ask questions of facility staff or federal officials on site. Cellphones also were restricted, and reporters only were allowed to carry pen and pad. Officials giving the tour read from a prepared script and did not answer questions.
Segregated by gender
The children are segregated in every aspect of their daily routine. Dorm rooms, classes and activities were all done with members of the same sex. Health and Human Services spokesman Jesus Garcia said three quarters of the unaccompanied children in custody nationwide are male, but the population at Fort Sill is half male, half female. All the juveniles are between the ages of 12 and 17.
The children are allowed to choose how to spend their day, Garcia said, given the choice between school work, arts and crafts or soccer.
In a large, dark room, a group of girls watched the movie “Frozen.” In the next room over, a group of about 60 boys listened to what appeared to be a language lesson.
Educational services provided focus on basic math and English, and they also are offered the option to attend Bible study.
The facility maintains a 12-to-1 child-to-worker ratio, and the children move from place to place in lines, flanked by staff members in navy blue shirts. Medical staff wear black scrubs, custodial staff wear gray, and cafeteria workers wear red.
More on the children being housed at Fort Sill: