The Moral Quandary of Selling Beds to Child Detention Centers

As if the border crisis couldn't get any more fraught and the debate over immigration and asylum-seekers any more contentious, now comes the furniture war.On Wednesday, employees of Wayfair, a giant online furniture retailer based in Boston, walked out in protest of the company's decision to sell beds to a Texas nonprofit that manages detention centers under government contract.The Washington Post reported a Wayfair employee's explanation: "We had hoped that raising awareness would be enough for them to do the right thing, but it wasn't. We want to make it clear that this is not a political issue -- it's a humanitarian issue, and we will not back down."This came on the heels of credible news reports of overcrowding and squalid conditions at some Texas detention facilities operated under government contract -- although not specifically the Carrizo Springs facility that ordered the furniture in question. However, that government contractor, BCFS, had another detention camp in Tornillo that was closed in January after an outcry over severe overcrowding and unsafe conditions. The Tornillo case appears to be an exception for BCFS, which otherwise runs exemplary facilities.To add a twist of irony to the drama, BCFS is an acronym for an institution previously known as Baptist Child and Family Services And BCFS for decades has been an affiliated ministry partner with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the largest association of Baptist churches in any state in America.Like so many child welfare agencies, BCFS was founded as an orphanage, later called a "children's home." Unlike other similar institutions, BCFS found its way into the post-orphanage era by securing federal government contracts on all manner of disaster and emergency child care situations from hurricane relief to help for people after church shootings. All for the sake of doing good, of helping children in distress. I know some of its leaders, I know some of its board members, and I know some of its donors.Sometimes good intentions to do good lead us down a path that doesn't turn out to look so good to others. BCFS has been criticized -- rightly or wrongly -- for making money off children in crisis. According to the last available Form 990 filed by BCFS with the Internal Revenue Service, the BCFS president in 2016 received "reportable compensation" of about $500,000. Six other staff members received reported compensation in excess of $200,000.Becoming a government contractor for such a delicate task as housing immigrant children isn't quite as guileless as Jesus' call to "suffer the little children to come unto me." Even if your motives are as pure as Jesus himself, it's easy for any faith-based organization to be criticized for getting in bed with the government. In the case of BCFS, the motivation appears to be genuinely to help kids and families in need for fear that if they stop doing this controversial work, the next vendor might care less and help less. I'm told the BCFS board would like to get out of the immigrant child care business but fears their exit would do more harm than good.Which brings us back to the dilemma of the Wayfair employees in Boston and beds for immigrant children. Critics of the protesting employees say they're hypocritical. They're protesting providing good bedding for the very children they say they're concerned about protecting. The reasoning of these critics is this: Isn't it better for these children to have bedding than to sleep on a concrete slab?To which the Wayfair employees respond: Supporting racist policy for the right reasons still means you're supporting racist policy. And: If we're going to do right by these children, we shouldn't make a profit off it. Which could mean BCFS should be able to buy the furniture for less and save some of that government money to pay its leadership more -- or to better serve the children in its care. But who knows -- because the government contracts come with gag orders that prevent contractors from explaining their work.Both Wayfair and BCFS find themselves short-sheeted by good intentions. Both say they want to do good, and yet both are criticized for their do-goodism. Meanwhile, more children pile up in detention facilities -- some unaccompanied minors and some cruelly separated from their parents by the Stephen Miller-inspired policy of our federal government -- one of many immigration policy problems Congress has the power to solve but refuses to address.This is the trickle-down moral economics of American policy today. It's harder and harder to know who are the good players and who are the bad players and who are the opportunistic players. It's possible some are all three at the same time.The quandary of how to do good without enabling bad has seldom been so stark.Mark Wingfield is associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.  Continue reading...

Copyright The Dallas Morning News
Contact Us