‘If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine’: Inside the abusive immigrant youth shelters

According to logs obtained by ProPublica, some immigrant youth shelters are a hotbed of sexual abuse.

Southwest Key Combes houses "tender age" immigrant children who have been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, in Harlingen, TX. (CREDIT: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Southwest Key Combes houses "tender age" immigrant children who have been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, in Harlingen, TX. (CREDIT: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Unaccompanied minors and children separated at the border from their families are living in shelters where sexual abusers look after them.

ProPublica obtained the police reports and call logs from more than two-thirds of youth immigrant shelters run and/or contracted by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. These shelters span 17 states and house around 10,000 immigrant youth at any given time.

Despite these shelters having a zero-tolerance policy against all forms of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior, the logs obtained by ProPublica show that in the past five years, police have responded to at least 125 calls reporting sex offenses these shelters.

That number doesn’t include another 200 calls from more than a dozen HHS-contracted shelters that care for at-risk youth residing in the U.S. The call records for those facilities don’t distinguish which calls came from unaccompanied immigrants and which came from other youth housed on the property.


“If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, told ProPublica. “You have full access and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.”

While it isn’t clear whether any of the children mentioned as victims in the reports were separated from their parents at the border as a result of Trump administration policies, the general fact remains that the shelters where immigrant children are being held are often dangerous.

A 46-year-old youth care worker at a shelter in Tuscon, Arizona was fired and convicted after repeatedly molesting a 15-year-old Honduran boy.

“I know what you want, I can give you anything you need,” the worker reportedly said to the child, according to the police report.


In 2017, another Honduran boy at the same shelter was recovering from surgery when he claims a worker at the shelter appeared at his bedside and reportedly said, “You have it very big,” referring to the 17-year-old’s penis. A few days later, the same employee brushed the teen with his hand while he was playing video games. According to the police report, the next time the staff member approached him, the boy locked himself in a bathroom.

While the majority of the offenders reported by ProPublica have since been placed on administrative leave or convicted, some shelters currently employ staff with a documented history of sexual misconduct.

As ThinkProgress has previously reported, The Villages, a shelter for unaccompanied minors, currently employs a man with a history of sex crimes. The shelter’s sole human resource employee, Jeffrey Montague, was banned from the Boy Scouts of America after allegations surfaced that he had made sexual advances on an exchange student at the high school where he worked. In October of 2007, Montague was charged with solicitation of sodomy in a public park in Topeka, Kansas, according to court records. He entered a diversion agreement one month later in Topeka Municipal Court.

But because the case was settled out of court, Montague passed a state background check.

The Villages executive director claims that because Montague does not have direct interaction with the children, his checkered past doesn’t matter. The Kansas Department of Children and Families is currently investigating his employment at the shelter.