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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Monday, June 2, 2014

Children Lose Childhoods in Immigrant Detention “Safe Haven” Centers: Sexual, Physical and Verbal Abuses

LOSFRESNOS, Texas (AP) — The round-cheeked 17-year-old boy with wide chocolate eyes hadn't felt like a child for some time. He'd spent months trying to reach the U.S., clinging to the tops of steel trains, holed up with kidnappers, shivering in a chilly Border Patrol holding tank.
"Safe Haven" child detention center Harlingen Texas

So, when the boy landed one winter day at a shelter for immigrant children caught in the U.S. illegally and alone, it seemed more like summer camp than a detention center.

In that oasis along a rural slab of Texas borderland, children chased soccer balls in the sun. The food was warm. The staff smiled.

He told the Houston Chronicle ( that one staff member, a burly night-shift worker, even brought him little gifts: woven bracelets and batteries for his MP3 player, a reward for good behavior.

Many of the young illegals report horrific abuse at the hands of immigrant smugglers, including being raped, being physically assaulted, and being force to perform slave labor to 'pay off' the costs of their transportation.  Hiring a smuggler to take a 13 year old from Honduras to the United States is said to cost $9,000, or far more than the average Honduran family makes in a year.

By law, unaccompanied children caught crossing illegally from countries other than Mexico are treated differently from other migrants. After being apprehended by the Border Patrol, they must be turned over within 72 hours to a refugee resettlement office that is part of the Health Department. Health officials must try to find relatives or other adults in the United States who can care for them while their immigration cases move through the courts, a search that can take several weeks or more. 
Analysts say some illegals are actively 'gaming' the system, being given false hope by smugglers of some sort of blanket amnesty for children if they can make it into the U.S.  Some children are told, falsely, that after that 'amnesty' is granted, they will be able to bring their families into the U.S. as well.

A report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, based on interviews of 404 children aged 12-17 who left their home countries, found that 70 percent did so because of either domestic abuse, or violence "in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors."

Minors who escape domestic abuse in their countries have a good chance of winning a special protective status from U.S. immigration courts, even if they are caught at the border. But the law does not recognize gang activity as a reason to protect immigrant children.


Suyen G, who asked that her full name not be published, said she left her native Honduras two years ago aged 16 after securing $9,000 to pay a smuggler to get her into the United States. "I didn't know it was illegal because a lot of people come. Everybody in my home town was doing it .  I thought it was something that normal people just do," she said through a translator.

Suyen has a quick smile and looks like a typical American teenager in her sandals and fashionably-torn blue jeans. But she recounts a harrowing journey, saying she left home to escape a father who was beating her, and that along the way she was raped by a "coyote" or migrant smuggler. She endured 24 hours with no food as she sat atop a slow-moving freight train through Mexico and made an overnight trek by foot.

When she struggled to pull herself over a wall at the Mexico-U.S. border, Suyen said, "I thought I was going to die" after being shoved over by a coyote, plunging down the other side and landing atop a man below.

Unlike many kids, she entered the United States undetected.  But for some of those that are caught by the “Migras”, like the Honduran boy referred to above, who thought detention was like a summer camp,  the “safe havens” turn out to be as terrifying as the conditions back home or the  journey to the US.

The Honduran boy hadn’t thought much about the gifts that  the burly night shift worker had been giving him for good behavior  until the night burly night shift worker creeped  into his bed late one night after “lights out” in the dorm.

The unaccompanied children (except the Mexicans who are generally repatriated to Mexico) are housed in a labyrinthine network of more than 90 state-licensed shelters, foster homes and detention centers that the government describes as "safe havens." Most children are well cared for.

It can create a nightmare for the children.  They are being detained by the federal government, placed in state licensed "safe havens" that are not considered jails or schools.  The local law enforcement officers don't know who has jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed there, and the FBI generally defers to local law enforcement in any investigation.

But a Houston Chronicle investigation found that youths inside the insular system have quietly suffered abuses by the people paid to protect them.

The system has repeatedly failed to hold abusers accountable, despite a federal law that makes sexual contact with a detainee a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the investigation found.

The full extent of sexual and physical abuse in the federal shelters is unknown. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency responsible for the children's care, has no specific system that tracks abuse allegations all the way through the investigative process — from outcry to outcome.

But for the first time, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Chronicle, the government has released copies of 101 "significant incident reports" from March 2011 to March 2013 involving abuse allegations against staff members. 

The Chronicle reviewed thousands of pages of records from federal, state and law enforcement agencies in five states and interviewed officials, former shelter staff and residents.

Among the Chronicle's findings:

— Children and teenagers reported having sexual contact — ranging from kissing to unwanted touching to intercourse — with staff in Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois, the federal records show.

— The Office of Refugee Resettlement relies on state childcare licensing and local police to investigate abuses of the children in its care, instead of notifying the FBI of serious allegations. In the hands of local police and prosecutors, criminal cases have crumbled because of sloppy detective work, communication gaps with federal officials and jurisdictional confusion.

— No shelter worker has been prosecuted under a 2008 federal provision that makes sexual contact with a detainee in ORR's care a felony.

— Youths in ORR custody in Texas were molested as they slept, sexually harassed and seduced by staff members during the past decade, records from state childcare licensing investigators and law enforcement show. They were shoved, kicked, punched and threatened with deportation if they reported abuses, investigators found.

— Federal officials were slow to adopt clearer, more stringent policies to help prevent and punish abuse. They wrote an interim rule to comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act only after Congress specifically ordered them in March 2013 to do so. The act requires strict standards for reporting, tracking, preventing and punishing abuses. ORR's proposed rule remains tied up in the regulatory process.

ORR Director Eskinder Negash said the agency is dedicated to protecting children in its care and ensuring that abuses are properly reported and investigated. He said ORR already makes sure that shelters follow state childcare licensing requirements for reporting abuses.

"The safety and the well-being of the children is our No. 1 priority," he said. "Every time there is an incident, regardless of how small it is, we make sure that the best interest of the children is protected, and we investigate, we follow up, we do training ."

— Youths in ORR custody in Texas were molested as they slept, sexually harassed and seduced by staff members during the past decade, records from state childcare licensing investigators and law enforcement show. They were shoved, kicked, punched and threatened with deportation if they reported abuses, investigators found.

— Federal officials were slow to adopt clearer, more stringent policies to help prevent and punish abuse. They wrote an interim rule to comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act only after Congress specifically ordered them in March 2013 to do so. The act requires strict standards for reporting, tracking, preventing and punishing abuses. ORR's proposed rule remains tied up in the regulatory process.

The outcome of many of the abuse investigations stemming from the significant incident reports remains off-limits to the public. State child protective officials in several states, including California, Arizona and New York, cited child abuse and neglect laws in refusing to discuss specific incidents.

The Chronicle's investigation found problems in the detention network dated back years. During the past decade, state childcare licensing investigators in Texas have documented more than 100 serious incidents in shelters and foster programs that held only ORR detainees. Dozens of workers were fired or disciplined in connection with sexual, physical and verbal abuses, maltreatment, inadequate supervision and inappropriate behavior and relationships.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Michelle Brane, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program for the Women's Refugee Commission, which has monitored the detention system for unaccompanied children for more than a decade. "I imagine there are many cases we don't know about."

More than a decade ago, Congress stripped U.S. immigration officials of the responsibility of caring for children caught in the U.S. illegally and alone, citing a litany of abuses under the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lawmakers shifted responsibility for their care in the spring of 2003 to ORR, a small agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.

The change created a loophole in federal law that became evident in the spring of 2007 in Nixon, a small town outside of San Antonio.

The FBI came out to investigate allegations that a 41-year-old worker named Belinda Leal had sexually abused a string of teenage boys detained in a shelter in Nixon. But federal prosecutors determined they lacked jurisdiction to charge Leal under a federal law criminalizing sexual abuse of ward because it specifically applied to inmates in Department of Justice custody.

Leal was sentenced to seven years on state charges. She is scheduled for release in June.

ORR shut down the Nixon shelter and pledged reforms, including a "zero tolerance" policy for abuses.

Kelly Kleinvachter, a national FBI spokeswoman, did not respond to specific questions about whether the agency defers to local law enforcement or would investigate abuses within the federal shelter network if notified.

The Chronicle's investigation found that case after case fell apart after landing on the desks of local law enforcement.

— A night-shift worker at a shelter in Brownsville sneaked up on a sleeping 17-year-old from Honduras and molested him early one morning in July 2010, according to statements by both the victim and the worker to Brownsville Police. "I really do mean (it) when I say I made a mistake and am willing to go to jail for what I did," the 27-year-old worker told police. In the case file, the detective wrote that the case originally was assigned as "indecency with a child by sexual contact." ''No arrest will be made as the victim is 17 years old and he is not considered a child by Texas law," he wrote. The detective reclassified the case to a Class C misdemeanor 

— the equivalent of a traffic ticket. The worker paid a $350 fine and now has a clean record.

— In August 2011, a state childcare licensing investigator cited a shelter in Harlingen after determining a worker had an "inappropriate relationship" with a detainee. The worker was fired. The licensing investigator reported to Harlingen Police that he had "received information that a sexual relationship involving a 17-year-old boy and 51-year-old female had taken place" at a shelter. 

Harlingen Police went out to the shelter to investigate nine months later, after they were contacted by a reporter. They then determined that because the shelter was neither a school nor a jail, and the alleged victim was 17 — the age of consent — there was no crime under Texas law. "We don't have jurisdiction over the feds," HPD Sgt. John Parrish said.

— A 39-year-old temporary worker at a Catholic Charities shelter in Cutler Bay, Fla., was fired in September 2011 after a 15-year-old boy told shelter administrators that she awakened him early one morning and led him into the shelter's laundry room and had sex with him. 

The case was referred to the Miami-Dade Police Department, but prosecutors ultimately declined to charge the worker. In the memo closing the case, the Miami-Dade State's Attorney's Office noted that the shelter "had custody of the child and did not wish to pursue prosecution of the subject." 

A second boy, 16, reported to his aunt in California after he was released from the shelter that he had oral sex with the same worker. Police eventually interviewed the boy and told him he could press charges. By then he had turned 18, and he declined.

"These cases are falling through the cracks," said Brane, of the Women's Refugee Commission. "There is a lot of confusion over who is supposed to do what."

Brane has lobbied for years for ORR to adopt a framework outlined by the Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission in 2009 for the reporting, tracking and punishment of abuses in custody. She said the government needs to enter into formal agreements with police and prosecutors to prevent cases from falling apart.

At the shelter in Los Fresnos, the 17-year-old boy didn't report what happened to him for more than a day.

He just cried.

A teacher in the shelter, run by the nonprofit International Educational Services Inc., eventually noticed his tears and asked what was wrong, the boy recalled. He said the night-shift worker came into the dormitory after midnight and stopped at his bunk bed. He asked where he had hidden the trinkets, then sexually assaulted him, the lad said.

"He said something bad would happen if I told anyone," he said.

The teacher quickly reported the abuse, and the night-shift worker was suspended and then resigned. The state cited the shelter for abuse. The staff member was arrested by Cameron County Sheriff's detectives on suspicion of indecency with a minor in February 2009.

Sam Smith, an assistant Cameron County district attorney, described what happened next, when an investigator went out to the shelter to find the boy and prepare him for trial: "We asked them, where is he? They said, 'Uhhh, I don't know.'"

Unable to call the boy as a witness, Cameron County prosecutors had no choice but to go to court and ask for dismissal of the charge, Smith said.

A judge dismissed the case, signing off on a motion that stated the victim was 17 at the time of the crime. Indecency with a minor covers victims only under 17.

The shelter's director, Roberto Lerma, declined comment.

The night-shift worker walked free. He did not return repeated phone calls to his home in Brownsville. His attorney also did not return phone calls.

"We certainly would have prosecuted the case, but we didn't have the victim," Smith said.

But using public records, a reporter found the Honduran lad living in Garland. He had turned 18 that summer in 2009 and was transferred to adult immigration detention. He posted bond and was released from custody, leaving his address on file with the U.S. government.

The Obama administration estimates that 60,000 unaccompanied children will be apprehended this year, up from about 6,500 in 2011,  and that number could more than double  to 130,000 next year. 

Two weeks ago, After seeing children packed in a Border Patrol station in McAllen, Tex., during a visit over Mother’s Day, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Monday declared “a level-four condition of readiness” in the Rio Grande Valley.  The alert was an official recognition that federal agencies overseeing borders, immigration enforcement and child welfare had been outstripped by a sudden increase in unaccompanied minors in recent weeks.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Johnson said the influx of unaccompanied youths had “zoomed to the top of my agenda” after his encounters at the McAllen Border Patrol station with small children, one of whom was 3 years old.

The level-four alert is the highest for agencies handling children crossing the border illegally, and allows Homeland Security officials to call on emergency resources from other agencies, officials said.

Hopefully, the problems of these children zooming to the top of his agenda will draw attention to and closer oversight of what happens in the “safe havens” that the US government provides for them.



  1. the UNFORGIVING TEXAS LAW in action...

  2. good ole U.S.A, what a sad life for these children

  3. Kill all child predators!

  4. K ill all child predators ! There is NO REHABILITATION for ppl like that

  5. Texas Youth Commission was shut down because the abuse was so rampid throughout the system. I did mental health screenings and assessments on children after they returned to the community on at least a dozen children. I was unbelievable what had been done to the children that for the most part were merely truant or ran away. I am serious, molested by opposite sex and same sex staff for 5 years straight. That was the sickest staff that could have ever been put together. They transported one of the 17 year old females to our MHMR facility and I began the assessment. A 35 year old female came to the assessment room and waved goodbye to her as if they were lovers. She later admitted the worker was one of several she had been forced to have sex with. She was heterosexual prior to incarceration but ask me, "will I ever like men again." Those Texas Youth Commission staff were pathetic and were shut down. Where do they get this kind of staff? How could the repeat the same mistake? Shouldn't the ones at the top be held accountable. This is no joke, every youth facility in Texas had the going on throughout. How sick is that? I am a veteran mental health worker of 25 years in Texas. Directors all the way to the top neep to be prosecuted for no less than neglect. And they should be open to suits too. They are worse than the Catholic Church.

  6. Put the staff in TDCJ and let it be known what they did to unprotected children.

  7. There Should Be A Survey Or whatever To See how Many Sex Slaves were at one point under CPS... because a lot of children in group homes run away and the govt don't giva.... It Sad really.. but there all over the world trying to fix everyone else problems. -CDS nuthugger

  8. God will take care of it

  9. The for-profit child prisons in the US masquerading as "schools" for every type of marginalized children, including these poor immigrant minors MUST be investigated and regulated. It is ******* inexcusable. Thanks to DD for the excellent article and Chivas for being an incomparable example of fearless modern journalism.

  10. Sad thing is that it is the US immigration laws that makes it appealing for people to send their children to the US. Then the abuse will continue. With the relaxed immigration laws and rules that allow kids to stay and the effort to get the children to family already in the US. As well intended as it is, it just makes the problem even worse.
    Does anyone have any ideas of how to better protect these kids speak up.

  11. They should be stopped at the Southern Border of Mexico. Because they will be kidnapped, extorted and many killed and tortured as proven by the many deaths at the hands of the Zeta's and El Chapo and more. They are actually looked as teller machines and are often sold to the Narco and other groups of kidnappers for a price. That is why they make it North on the trains. This was what happened to the 72 people killed by the Zeta's (twice). They were sold to them by immigration agents of Mexico after being arrested. Then you have the USA that does not enforce their immigration laws. This is holding up a carrot for these people to risk their lives. The emphasis should be made on helping these countries make lives better for their citizens, so they will not have to flee to the USA for a better live. Their governments do not care about them. Very sad situation for these children. Get rid of these governments that prey upon their people with criminals as their tool, and you will see a change in those countries. Enforce the laws on both borders, enforce worker laws like Mexico does and their will be no incentive to risk their lives.

  12. Children stay home with your family. That's what normal children do.

  13. A child molester is a million times worse rhan a drug dealer .These animals that abuse childern deserve to be raped by horses and then cut up in pieces while still alive.also electrocuted beaten skinned alive and decapitated. like the late great Senior M1 El Ondeado once said Mis respetos pa los Ninos

    RIP... R5 M1 El Bravo... pura gente de trabajo.

    1. We all know this to be true....sad part is drug dealers are given heavier sentences.

    2. Like that stupid judge somewhere in the U S. that gave a rapist, not sure but I think it was like 45 days for rape and blamed the child for it.

  14. This is horrible! , but I understand why they rape a 16 or 17 years old they are fully developed body wise. don't get me wrong I don't agree with it but it's horrific and I don't get it when anyone would do anything to a kid under 12 or even a toddler.

    1. @12:01

      "I don't get it when anyone would do anything to a kid under 12 or even a toddler"
      So you're ok with a 13 or 14 year old getting raped? You're girlfriend is probably 13 yrs old and you think its ok because her body has been fully developed. You SICK BASTARD!

  15. "illegals"??
    I am surprised that term is used

  16. @7:27 mexico does not enforce any laws in favor of the workers, it is against god and country, the US second hand weaponry is there to enforce and reinforce the goodness of the mexican state, like it or not...

  17. All rapists deserve at least to be castrated if. it was up to me death anybody that abuses a chikd dont deserve to live

  18. 1:57 PM I am an American living in Mexico. Maybe I left that part out. It is illegal for me to have a business or to work for someone here as an illegal alien, or to be here legally and make money without a work visa. They would enforce the law against me if they caught me working here without proper documentation. I was pulled over the other day just to see if my visa and car permit was up to date. If not I would have had some real problems. Appreciate the response and I hope that clears that up. If not please respond again.

  19. 6:02 in the mexico i know, you only get away from the police after paying mordida, if you were all legal and right and in order, you still pay, for being too smart, and if they suspect you have the means to pay ransom, say goodbye to your money, it is chance i would not take, i gave up on mexican government, army and police a long time ago, and i find an american moving so freely in mexico must be about something else, intelligence or private security? reynosa?
    anyways, i would be very scared to have any money and be around in mexico, i know i attract trouble...
    --texas youth comission, david koresh and several churches, coupled with TEXAS law enforcement and several other youth serving facilities, "can't do anything about any of this..." nice to know dd, or is it DD?

  20. very little proof, only a few isolated incidents, one ended up in a conviction. The Dream Act has invited younger children to make the trek into the US and added the risk of sexual abuse. Most children are abused in Mexico, way before they make it into the US.

  21. 7:28
    --and many of those children are abused by international world famous pederasta tourists on world famous hotel franchises.
    --and of course lack of proof proves not guilty, but it doesn't prove innocence.
    --some US citizens are experts at getting rid of evidence, due to a life long pursuit of impunity, be it drug trafficking, crimes against humanity, money laundering, dirty wars, and wars under false pretenses...
    --a few crimes on sacrosanct texas soil, against a few or many little illegal aliens, are not going to matter for long...

  22. As soon as they cross into Mexico, their hell begins. Get ready to be robbed, raped, beaten, kidnapped, or enslaved by "fellow" Latinos.

  23. @1:03 ..fellow latinos who learned their dirty tricks at the latin american franchises of the School of the Americas, also known as:
    The School of Assassins, trained by the US to keep the slaves peaceful or dead at the plantation on the banana republics, aaight?
    -boooy how stupid can you be to be expressing that kind of bullshit...


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