Immigrant children being housed in a Virginia detention facility were subjected to brutally abusive conditions, the Associated Press reported Thursday.
The claims were made public in a series of court filings against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton, Virginia, which holds 58 secure beds for youths 12 to 17 years old, and has allegedly imprisoned a number of Latinx teens for anywhere from a few months to several years.
The teens, some of whom are as young as 14, say they were sent to the prison after being accused by U.S. immigration officials of belonging to gangs like MS-13, a favorite topic of discussion for President Trump. Their allegations detail horrific acts of violence, including broken bones, regular beatings, and psychological abuse.
According to the AP, “Latino children were frequently punished by being restrained for hours in chairs, with handcuffs and cloth shackles on their legs. Often, the lawsuit alleged, the children were beaten by staff while bound.”
“Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me. They also put a bag over your head,” said one Honduran immigrant who was locked up in the prison when he was only 15 years old.
A former child-development specialist who was previously employed by Shenandoah Valley, and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment publicly, told reporters she “saw kids there with bruises and broken bones they blamed on guards.”
The filings allege that children were frequently denied adequate medical care; one teen, a 17-year-old Mexican citizen detained at the U.S. southern border, claimed that, after being diagnosed with three separate mental disorders, including depression, he was given no further treatment to address the issues.
Some of the teens allege that they were locked in prison cells for most of the day, barring a few hours each day during which they were given meals, recreation time, or education courses. Others said they were never allowed to go outside.
Shenandoah Valley lawyers have denied the allegations outlined in the lawsuit, a hearing for which will be held July 3 in Virginia.
The alleged abuses further compound concerns from migrant rights groups and immigration lawyers who have heard complaints about the facility and others like it, and worry about the children detained and separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border who could soon be sent there.
Under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, anyone detained at the border without documentation is referred to authorities for criminal prosecution, a change from past administrations, who treated unauthorized border crossings as a misdemeanor. The policy makes no exceptions for asylum-seekers, many of whom have been illegally turned away from the border ports of entry.
Due to a 1997 court settlement, Flores v. Reno, officials are barred from holding children in detention facilities for longer than 20 days. The Trump administration has exploited that loophole to violently separate immigrant children from their parents, under the guise of following the law, sending kids to their own facilities or internment camps, sometimes without their parents’ knowledge.
Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ordering border agents to keep families detained together and asking the courts to change their view on Flores, which means that indefinite detainment of families could be a possibility.
Currently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is charged with handling the children who have already been separated as well as thousands of other unaccompanied immigrant minors. While the majority remain in detention facilities — with children under the age of 12, including infants, being housed in “tender age” prison camps — HHS also contracts with three secure detention centers, including Shenandoah Valley, and several semi-secure facilities and psychiatric treatment centers, to house youths it deems dangerous or disruptive.
As ThinkProgress reported this week, that could include anyone from a child who has a fight, to one with a suspected gang affiliation, to a teen in the middle of a mental health crisis.
Immigration lawyers say they’re worried children currently suffering traumatic breakdowns after being ripped from their parents’ care at the border may be labeled “disruptive” and sent to places like Shenandoah Valley.
“We haven’t seen any of the family separation cases yet — probably just because I don’t know if any of them have made their way to Virginia,” Legal Aid lawyer Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, who works with children housed at the prison and another Virginia detention facility, told ThinkProgress Wednesday. “But I’m sure we will any day now.”
“Undoubtedly, children that are ripped away from their parents at the border are experiencing an extreme form of trauma that they are not equipped to handle,” Jesse Hahnel, executive director of the National Center for Youth Law added in an email. “This trauma may lead to intense mental health distress that paves the path to their being stepped up to more secure facilities.”
Once those children arrive at the facilities, they’re at risk of suffering the kinds of alleged abuses detailed in the Shenandoah Valley lawsuit — and more.
“We’ve heard children in secure detention and staff-secure detention taking medication and not knowing the names of the medication or what they’re for,” Nithya Nathan-Pineau, a lawyer representing migrant children at two secure detention facilities in Virginia, told ThinkProgress. “[They’re] also being told that if they don’t take the medication, that will be counted against their behavior.”
She added that many of the children she had worked with previously were not warned ahead of time that they were being transferred to the prisons from their detention facilities, or given any chance to challenge the reasoning behind their move.
“They may be given a written notice of why they’re being stepped up, but they often, they don’t totally understand it, or it’s not something that’s very clear to them,” she said. “The process isn’t very clear.”