Child immigration detainees sexually abused

During the week of March 19, federal officials transferred all 72 children out of a Texas detention facility for unaccompanied minors amid allegations that staff there had sexually abused some of the detainees. The 72 children held at the Texas Sheltered Care facility in Nixon were transferred to several destinations, said Tara Wall, a spokesperson at the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. Some were sent to other child detention facilities in Texas, while others were deported. “No person who had made allegations of abuse was deported,” according to Wall.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees 36 facilities for unaccompanied minors throughout the US, including the one in Nixon. About 8,000 children a year, mainly teenagers from Central America who crossed into the US without permission, are held at these facilities while authorities determine whether to place them in foster care, hand them over to relatives in the US or deport them. Most are deported. The average stay at Texas Sheltered Care was 18 days. The 136-bed facility, operated by Away from Home Inc., usually held about 100 mostly teenage male undocumented immigrants.

The Bernardo Kohler Center is representing three children who say they were abused at Texas Sheltered Care. Sources familiar with the allegations said eight children made accusations against an employee; that employee has since been fired. Federal officials said they decided to move all the children out of the shelter until they determine whether to take other steps, including permanently closing the facility.

The Gonzales County district attorney’s office had initially concluded that the local sheriff did not have jurisdiction in the case, and brought in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which launched an investigation in February or early March into the allegations of abuse. Erik Vasys, spokesperson for the FBI’s San Antonio office, said investigators believed abuse had taken place.

But the US attorney’s office announced on March 22 that it had decided not to bring any federal charges in the case. “After a thorough review of the evidence and applicable federal law, this office concluded that the alleged activity…could likely be more effectively addressed by state of Texas prosecutorial authorities,” Johnny Sutton, US attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in a statement. “The most we could prove would be a misdemeanor violation of civil rights, when the state has available to it a statutory violation that would result in a felony conviction,” Sutton said. It is not clear whether the state will pursue the charges: “Our prosecutor is going to take a look at it, see if there are state charges,” said Gonzales County Sheriff Glen A. Sachtleben. (Los Angeles Times, San Antonio Express-News, March 23; Houston Chronicle, March 24)

From Immigration News Briefs, March 24

See our last post on the immigration crackdown.