TOPEKA — Managers of The Villages informed Republican and Democratic lawmakers the Topeka facility was caring for 50 children who entered the U.S. illegally and that a federal contract had led nearly 300 youths this year to temporary housing at the complex.
Gov. Jeff Colyer and one of his Cabinet members accompanied five legislators Thursday on a visit to The Villages, which has been hosting children taken into custody along the U.S. border. A portion of the children controlled by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement were among those separated from a parent at the border under President Donald Trump's policy of dividing families in an attempt to deter illegal immigration.
House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat critical of the Trump administration policy, said he welcomed the opportunity to learn more about care and safety of the children.
He said The Villages staff left unanswered questions about the volume of children caught up in the separation policy, but previous reports indicated the number was less than 10.
"We appreciated the opportunity to see the living facilities," Ward said. "What troubled me, however, was the lack of information the director could provide about the children in custody. We do not know how many of the 50 children in the facility are here because of forced separations from their families."
He said The Villages designated four homes on the Topeka property for children in the federal detention operation. School instruction is provided at the site, and two staff members were assigned to each residential unit.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said staff at The Villages said the average length of stay for children under their care was 41 days. The majority of the 50 living there now were citizens of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, Hensley said. During the tour, he said, he observed some of the children playing on a soccer field.
"I'd have to say they are being well-treated," Hensley said. "It's a temporary situation. The Villages has had a long-term good reputation."
Hensley and Ward were joined on the tour by Reps. John Alcala, D-Topeka, and Fred Patton, R-Topeka, and Rep. Jarrod Ousley, D-Merriam. Patton said he felt assured the children were receiving quality counseling and educational services.
The tour group included Colyer and Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families.
A spokesperson for the governor didn't respond to a request for comment, but Meier-Hummel said previously that DCF was responsible for licensing The Villages. She indicated the agency had no direct oversight of the federal government's contract with the facility, but reported children in the care of The Villages seemed to be adjusting well to their surroundings.
In June, former U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom stepped forward to help organize legal representation for children at The Villages who were separated from their families at the border.