North Philly center for immigrant minors stalled by Pa. appeals judge

In this file photo, VisionQuest appears for Judge Paula Patrick for a Zoning Board hearing, at City Hall, on May 23, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

In this file photo, VisionQuest appears for Judge Paula Patrick for a Zoning Board hearing, at City Hall, on May 23, 2019. (Bastiaan Slabbers for WHYY)

A Pennsylvania appeals court has stayed the opening of a contested immigrant youth facility in North Philadelphia.

Wednesday’s ruling is the latest in a five-month-long legal battle between the city of Philadelphia and the for-profit youth social services provider VisionQuest, which is based in Arizona.

City attorneys have argued that company lacks proper zoning at its Logan Plaza building to house teenage boys seeking legal status in the U.S.

VisionQuest, which is under contract with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to place up to 60 minors between the ages of 13 and 17, largely from Central America, hoped to begin moving residents into the building earlier this year.

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Instead, the Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a zoning violation notice in January, barring the facility from operating without seeking a different permit.

From that notice, litigation and controversy have blossomed. VisionQuest appealed the violation to the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment and then to the Pennsylvania state courts. It also filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the Board and the City of Philadelphia. Both cases are ongoing.

On June 19, Philadelphia Common Pleas judge Paula Patrick ruled that the facility, called the Grace Dix Center, could open while its appeal wound through the court system. She also openly speculated as to why the city was fighting the opening, and appointed a former family court judge to oversee the transfer of kids into the facility.

On Wednesday, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne E. Covey blocked the operation once more, by upholding a stay on Patrick’s decision, saying VisionQuest failed to prove it would suffer “irreparable injury” if not allowed to place kids in the center.

“The alleged irreparable harm was speculative, compensable, and not personal to VisionQuest,” she wrote.

VisionQuest’s attorneys have repeatedly argued that their services are crucial to alleviate the crowding at immigrant shelters and detention facilities at the U.S. border. The company currently runs one other federally-contracted facility in Arizona.

“Here we are with a wonderful facility, empty,” said VisionQuest attorney Carl Primavera. “We’re disappointed [in Judge Covey’s order], but it’s part of the process and we just keep moving forward.”

VisionQuest spokesperson Dawn Chavous echoed the word “disappointing.”

“It is equally disappointing that we are having to continue to litigate with the city of Philadelphia, a sanctuary city, who has opened its doors to provide refuge and services to immigrants — the exact purpose of why the Grace Dix Center exists — yet is preventing us from providing these services to immigrant children who will now have to remain at the border until this is fully resolved,” she wrote in a statement.

In Philadelphia, VisionQuest’s track record may have something to do with local resistance. The company previously ran a residential youth center in the same building in Philadelphia, housing children for the city’s Department of Human Services. It closed in 2017, following allegations that staff verbally and physically assaulted minors in their care.

City spokespeople declined to comment on the Commonwealth Court decision, citing ongoing litigation.

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