At least 4,500 abuse complaints at migrant children shelters
Young migrants who are awaiting their chance to request asylum in the U.S. eat donated food inside a shelter at Bachilleres gymnasium in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Christian Torres)
WASHINGTON -- Thousands of accusations of sexual abuse and harassment of migrant children in government-funded shelters were made over the past four years, including scores directed against adult staff members, according to federal data released Tuesday.
The cases include allegations of inappropriate touching to staff members allegedly watching minors while they bathed and showing pornographic videos to minors. Some of the allegations included inappropriate conduct by minors in shelters against other minors, as well as by staff members.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., released the Health and Human Services Department data amid a hearing on the Trump administration's policy of family separations at the border. The data span both the Obama and Trump administrations, and were first reported by Axios.
From October 2014 to July 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of Health and Human Services, received 4,556 complaints, including allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and inappropriate behaviour. Of those, the Justice Department received 1,303 more serious sex abuse complaints, including 178 allegations of sexual abuse by adult staff, officials said.
The number of complaints decreased during budget year 2017, but otherwise has hovered at about 1,200 per year. Refugee Resettlement officials said the majority of the allegations were "inappropriate sexual behaviours" between minors at the facilities, and shelters can often resolve these allegations through counselling and other non-criminal avenues.
Department officials said the majority of allegations weren't substantiated, and they defended their care of children. They also noted the accused staff members were not employees of the department.
"We share the concern," said Jonathan White, a Health and Human Services official who was in charge of the effort to reunify children with their parents, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee. "Any time a child is abused ... is one time too many. We abide fully with the laws this Congress has passed, and we are very proud of our outstanding track record of full compliance including referring every allegation for investigation."
The Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of tens of thousands of migrant children who cycle through the system each year. More than 2,700 children were separated from their parents over the summer at the border, and were placed in shelters. But most of the children in government custody crossed the border alone.
Children are placed in custody until they can be released to sponsors, usually a parent or close relative, while awaiting immigration proceedings. The shelters are privately run under contracts with the government.
Youth are held for increasingly longer periods of time, currently about two months. As of the first week of February, more than 11,000 migrant toddlers, children and teens were in federal custody as unaccompanied minors, up from about 2,500 detained children three months after Trump took office.
Sexual abuse allegations are reported to federal law enforcement, though it's not clear whether anyone was charged criminally. In many cases, staff members were suspended and eventually fired.
Deutch said the data were clearly alarming.
"Together, these documents detail an unsafe environment of sexual assaults by staff on unaccompanied minors," he said.
Health and Human Services officials say all allegations are taken very seriously, and the department co-operates with all investigations.
Facilities under government contract must provide training to all staff, contractors and volunteers. Background checks are completed on potential employees, and facilities are prohibited from hiring anyone who has engaged in inappropriate sexual behaviour.
But Arizona officials moved last fall to revoke licenses for one of the major nonprofits that operates migrant children shelters after it missed a deadline to show that all its employees passed background checks.
A state investigation of Texas-based Southwest Key last summer, prompted by several reports of sexual abuse of immigrant children in Arizona, found that some shelters had not conducted fingerprint checks for all employees.
Southwest Key has apologized and is working with the state to ensure it never misses a deadline again, a spokesman said.