At Least 101 Unaccompanied Migrant Children Were Allegedly Abused By Shelter Workers

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee

Children of immigrant parents sing the "Happy Birthday" song to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in front of a Capitol Hill office building.

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CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Y. Lee

One worker who molested a 17-year-old paid a $350 fine for his crime and now has a clean record. Another worker who had an “inappropriate relationship” with a 17-year-old detainee committed “no crime under Texas law” since the victim had reached the age of consent. Still another worker was fired, but not charged, for having sex with a 15-year-old boy lured to the shelter’s laundry room. These are just some of the allegations found by the Houston Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, in which “the government has released copies of 101 ‘significant incident reports'” of unaccompanied children who crossed the border by themselves and reported abuse allegations by staff members in federal shelters, between March 2011 and March 2013.

In its shocking investigation, the Houston Chronicle found that “children and teenagers reported having sexual contact– ranging from kissing to unwanted touching to intercourse — with staff in Texas, Florida, New York, and Illinois; the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) relies on state childcare licensing and local police to investigate abuses of the children in its care, instead of notifying the FBI of serious allegations; no shelter worker has been prosecuted under a 2008 federal provision that makes sexual contact with a detainee in ORR’s care a felony”; “youths in ORR custody in Texas were molested as they slept, sexually harassed and seduced by staff members during the past decade … they were shoved, kicked, punched and threatened with deportation if they reported abuses” ; and “federal officials were slow to adopt clearer, more stringent policies to help prevent and punish abuse.”

More than 60,000 unaccompanied migrant children are expected to cross the southern border into the United States this year in search of a safer life. Some are trying to reunite with their relatives while others are fleeing violence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Once captured by Border Patrol officers, children are placed in shelters where they may face sexual abuse by shelter employees.

Under an agreement between the United States and Mexico, consular authorities are contacted when unaccompanied children from Mexico are stopped at the border. Those children are sent back with a “voluntary return” order. Unaccompanied children from other countries, however, must go through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) program housed within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in which they are placed in the “least restrictive setting appropriate to their ages and any special needs,” according to the Vera Institute. Those children are put in any of the 90 designated “state-licensed shelters, foster homes, and detention centers that the government describes as ‘safe havens.'”

About 40 percent of children admitted into ORR care are eligible for some form of legal relief from removal (like asylum, or U and T visas for victims of crime and trafficking, respectively) and fewer than one percent of children are granted relief from removal.

As far back as 2005, more than 700 children were in ORR’s care on any given day, according to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA.) That daily number has risen so dramatically that in mid-May, Department Homeland Security Jeh Johnson declared that the situation had reached a “level-four condition of readiness” — the “highest for agencies handling children crossing the border illegally, and allows Homeland Security officials to call on emergency resources from other agencies,” officials told the New York Times. At the same time, Secretary Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved using an unused building at the Lackland Air Force Base to temporarily house up to 1,000 unaccompanied alien children. The HHS is currently equipped to accommodate 53,000 unaccompanied minors, “with a 9,000 seasonal increase in shelter beds,” according to the HHS 2015 fiscal year budget.

Despite the fact that the number of unaccompanied minors is expected to exceed the allotted budget, the HHS has kept its FY 2015 budget the same as for FY 2014, at $868 million, citing the “volatile nature” of being unable to “reliably predict the number of [unaccompanied alien children] who will arrive in FY 2015,” according to the HHS budget.