An article published today (July 10) by Mother Jones details how the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a Department of Health and Human Services program in charge of caring for migrant children, is placing youth in jail-like juvenile detention facilities that are under investigation for child abuse.
The story begins with a 16-year-old immigrant teen identified as Alonzo whose parents urged him to flee gang violence in his native El Salvador. Upon arrival, Alonzo was assessed by a psychologist who he believes mistakenly recommended his transfer to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center under the false pretense that he was involved in gang violence.
Now, Alonzo is one of five plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed in California late last month that accuses ORR of classifying immigrant youth as dangerous criminals without giving them a chance to disprove those claims, and subsequently placing them in violent, abusive conditions. The suit was filed by attorneys at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, the Immigration Law Clinic and the National Center for Youth Law, and the plaintiffs include youth from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
According to Mother Jones, hundreds children are being sent to youth detention centers and psychiatric facilities without advance notice, many of them awakened in the middle of the night to be transported in shackles. Attorneys say they include those who fled their home countries alone, those who were separated from their families at the border, and kids who were placed in custody after living in the United States for several years.
Abuse has been alleged at several of these facilities. Last month, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam launched an investigation into claims made by immigrant children that they were subjected to beatings, solitary confinement and racist guard attacks at the Shenandoah center, as reported by The Associated Press. The Shiloh Treatment Center, a psychiatric facility in Houston, Texas, was recently accused of injecting immigrant children with psychiatric drugs without their consent.
The plaintiffs allege that barriers to freedom are mounted against detained children. According to the lawsuit, medical personnel must declare youth mentally fit before they can be released or moved to a low-security shelter, but minors are denied the chance to prove their cases.
Parents and other relatives living in the United States also find it difficult to demonstrate that they can provide a safe environment for their children’s release. From Mother Jones:
One mom was denied because officials found gang graffiti two blocks from her house. Others were rejected because they lacked the funds to pay for medication their children were forced to take in federal custody. Some have too many young kids already living at home. Miguel Angel S., who was put in the headlock at Shiloh, could not be released to his father in San Jose, California, because a case worker required that his father prove the boy was enrolled in school, but the local school refused to enroll him unless he was physically present.
The lawsuit accuses ORR of violating the Fifth Amendment and the Flores agreement, a 1997 court decision that requires the federal government to place immigrant kids held in their custody in the “least restrictive” setting possible. While immigrant kids can still be sent to juvenile facilities under Flores, ORR must review their cases after 30 days. A lawyer in the case told Mother Jones that many children are not being placed through this review process.