Thousands of migrant children allegedly sexually abused at US detention centres, records show

Number of complaints increased when Trump's family separation policy was in place, according to Justice Department data 

Matthew Haag
Thursday 28 February 2019 13:50 GMT
Migrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas
Migrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas (Reuters)

The US government has received more than 4,500 complaints in four years about the sexual abuse of immigrant children who were being held at government-funded detention facilities, the Justice Department revealed this week.

The number of complaints increased while the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the border was in place, the data reveals.

The records, which involve children who had entered the country alone or had been separated from their parents, detailed allegations that adult staff members had harassed and assaulted children.

These allegations involved fondling and kissing minors, watching them as they showered, and raping them. They also included cases of suspected abuse of children by other minors.

From October 2014 to July 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of the Health and Human Services Department that cares for unaccompanied minors, received 4,556 allegations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment, 1,303 of which were referred to the Justice Department.

Of those 1,303 cases deemed the most serious, 178 were accusations that adult staff members had sexually assaulted immigrant children, while the rest were allegations of minors assaulting other minors, the report said.

“The safety of minors is our top concern when administering the UAC program,” Jonathan H Hayes, acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said in a statement, using an abbreviation for unaccompanied children. None of the allegations involved ORR federal staff. These allegations were all fully investigated, and remedial action was taken where appropriate.”

The records do not detail the outcome of every complaint, but they indicate that some accusations were determined to be unfounded or lacking enough evidence to prosecute.

In one case, a staff member at a Chicago detention facility was accused in April 2015 of fondling and kissing a child and was later charged with a crime. The report did not state whether that person had been found guilty.

The documents, first reported by Axios, were made public by Representative Ted Deutch, the night before a House Judiciary Committee hearing about the Trump administration’s policy of family separations at the southern border.

That policy, which was put in place last spring, resulted in more than 2,700 children being separated from their parents under Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border illegally. This included families seeking asylum on humanitarian grounds.

For most of the four years covered by the report, the number of allegations made to the Office of Refugee Resettlement stayed about the same from month to month.

But the number of complaints rose after the Trump administration enacted its separation policy. From March 2018 to July 2018, the agency received 859 complaints, the largest number of reports during any five-month span in the previous four years.

Of those, 342 allegations were referred to the Justice Department, the report showed.

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During the hearing earlier this week, a discussion of the records sparked a heated exchange between Mr Deutch and Commander Jonathan White of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Last year, Mr White repeatedly warned a top official in Health and Human Services that the family separation policy could permanently traumatise young children.

As Mr Deutch read some of the report, Mr White interjected, “That is false!”

He later apologised, claiming that a “vast majority of allegations proved to be unfounded.” He said he was unaware of any accusations against staff members that were found to have merit.

The New York Times

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