By Michael Grabell and Topher Sanders
Just five days after he reached the United States, the 15-year-old Honduran boy awoke in his Tucson, Arizona, immigrant shelter one morning in 2015 to find a youth care worker in his room, tickling his chest and stomach.
When he asked the man, who was 46, what he was doing, the man left. But he returned two more times, rubbing the teen’s penis through his clothing and then trying to reach under his boxers. “I know what you want, I can give you anything you need,” said the worker, who was later convicted of molestation.
In 2017, a 17-year-old from Honduras was recovering from surgery at the shelter when he woke up to find a male staff member standing by his bed. “You have it very big,” the man said, referring to the teen’s penis. Days later, that same employee brushed the teen with his hand while he was playing video games. When the staff member approached him again, the boy locked himself in a bathroom.
And in January of this year, a security guard at the shelter found notes in a minor’s jacket that suggested an inappropriate relationship with a staff member.
Pulled from police reports, incidents like these at Southwest Key’s Tucson shelter provide a snapshot of what has largely been kept from the public as well as members of Congress — a view, uncolored by politics, of troubling incidents inside the facilities housing immigrant children.
Using state public records laws, ProPublica has obtained police reports and call logs concerning more than 70 of the approximately 100 immigrant youth shelters run by the U.S. Health and Human Services department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement. While not a comprehensive assessment of the conditions at these shelters, the records challenge the Trump administration’s assertion that the shelters are safe havens for children. The reports document hundreds of allegations of sexual offenses, fights and missing children.
The recently discontinued practice of separating children from their parents has thrust the youth shelters into the national spotlight. But, with little public scrutiny, they have long cared for thousands of immigrant children, most of them teenagers, although last year 17 percent were under 13. On any given day, the shelters in 17 states across the country house around 10,000 adolescents.
The more than 1,000 pages of police reports and logs detail incidents dating back to the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014 during the Obama administration. But immigrant advocates, psychologists and officials who formerly oversaw the shelters say the Trump administration’s harsh new policies have only increased pressures on the facilities, which often are hard-pressed to provide adequate staffing for kids who suffer from untold traumas and who now exist in a legal limbo that could shape the rest of their lives.
“If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” said Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center. “You have full access and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.”
Southwest Key wouldn’t discuss specific incidents, but said in a statement that the company has a strict policy on abuse and neglect and takes every allegation seriously. HHS declined ProPublica’s requests to interview the refugee resettlement program’s director, Scott Lloyd. The agency released a statement saying it “treats its responsibility for each child with the utmost care” and has a “zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or inappropriate behavior” at the shelters.
But the reports collected by ProPublica so far show that in the past five years, police have responded to at least 125 calls reporting sex offenses at shelters that primarily serve immigrant children. That number doesn’t include another 200 such calls from more than a dozen shelters that also care for at-risk youth residing in the U.S. Call records for those facilities don’t distinguish which reports related to unaccompanied immigrants and which to other youth housed on the property.
Psychologists who’ve worked with immigrant youth said the records likely undercount the problems because many kids might not report abuse for fear of affecting their immigration cases.
It’s unclear whether any of the children mentioned as victims in the reports were separated from their parents at the border, but the reports include several children as young as 6 years old. The government faced a court deadline Thursday to reunite the nearly 3,000 children who were separated from their parents. But the administration told the court that more than 700 of those children remain in shelters or foster care because their parents have already been deported or have been deemed ineligible for reunification for various reasons.
Not all the reports reveal abuse. The shelters are required to report any sexual allegation to the police and many reports detail minor incidents and horseplay not uncommon in American schools. For example, the BCFS International Children’s Shelter in Harlingen, Texas, called the police in February after one minor entered another’s room and rubbed a small styrofoam ball on the juvenile’s buttocks.
And, once secure in the shelters, some immigrant children report assaults that occurred not at the shelters, but in their home countries. Last November, a 14-year-old girl staying in a shelter in Irvington, New York, told staff she had been raped in Honduras by a man who was now in immigration custody.
But the reports show that the allegations of staff abuse and inappropriate relationships that occurred in Tucson aren’t isolated. In February, a 24-year-old youth care worker at KidsPeace in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was placed on administrative leave after kissing a teenage boy in the laundry room. Just over a year earlier, a 21-year-old staff member there was accused of kissing a 16-year-old girl in the hallway. The BCFS shelter in Harlingen was written up by state regulators in 2017 after a staff member flew to New York to visit a former resident. And at a Southwest Key shelter outside San Diego, reports show, a female employee who had been accused of kissing a juvenile quit after being confronted with information that the teenager had the woman’s Snapchat account written on a piece of paper.
KidsPeace wouldn’t discuss personnel matters but said “the safety and well-being of our young clients are our top priority.”
BCFS said the staff member was terminated for violating agency policy and that it has "very strict and clear boundaries for our staff."
The reports also reveal dozens of incidents of unwanted groping and indecent exposure among children and teenagers at the facilities. Some kids fleeing threats and violence in their home countries arrived in the United States only to be placed in shelters where they faced similar dangers. In March, a 15-year-old boy at the Southwest Key shelter in Tucson reported that his roommate lifted up his legs as he was trying to go to sleep, made thrusting motions and said, “I’m going rape you.” And in late 2016, a 15-year-old at KidsPeace told police that another boy there had been forcing him to have oral sex. After an investigation, one teen was transferred to a more secure facility. (KidsPeace said it wouldn’t discuss specific information about kids in its care.)
While it’s difficult to get a complete count, the police reports show that children go missing or run away from the shelters roughly once a week. Several shelters, including Southwest Key's Tucson facility, have seen a significant increase in missing person and runaway calls since the start of 2018. St. PJ’s Children’s Home in San Antonio, which primarily cares for immigrant children, has had 26 such calls in the first half of the year, records show, compared to 14 for all of last year and nine for 2016.
St. PJ’s Children’s Home responded after publication and said its spike in runaways involves U.S. children, not immigrant youth.
The police reports also raise questions about how Southwest Key, the largest operator of immigrant shelters, handles such incidents. In the molestation case involving the 46-year-old staffer, police had obtained edited surveillance footage but later sought a complete, unedited version. Southwest Key, however, had taped over the footage. And in another case, police noted that Southwest Key refused to give officers records from an internal investigation.
Southwest Key CEO Juan Sánchez declined an interview. The Texas-based nonprofit has received more than $1.3 billion in federal grants and contracts in the past five years for the shelters and other services. Jeff Eller, a spokesman, said, “We cooperate with all investigations.”
Government officials and advocates say most immigrant youth shelters were never intended to house children long-term. But in recent weeks, the average length of stay has climbed to 57 days from 34 days just two years ago.
Maria Cancian, deputy assistant secretary for policy at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families from 2015 to 2016, said typically the shelters only housed immigrant kids for the “honeymoon period” when they first arrived in the U.S.
“The kids didn’t have a chance to get bored and ornery,” she said. “The longer kids are there, the more trouble you’re going to have, and the more opportunities there are for relationships to evolve in ways that are more challenging.”
Cancian, who served under President Obama, said the shelters were well run when she was there. “But if you’re serving 65,000 children in a year,” she said, “there are going to be some bad incidents.”
The network of federally funded shelters sprang up after HHS took over the responsibility of caring for unaccompanied children arriving at the border in 2003. For most of their existence, the shelters received little attention, serving fewer than 8,000 children a year. But in 2014, that number surged to nearly 60,000 as a flood of teenagers fleeing gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador sought asylum in the U.S.
The shelters — whose operators have been paid about $4 billion over the past five years — were designed as temporary way stations, where new arrivals could get acclimated while staffers tried to locate family members who could care for them while their immigration cases wound through the courts.
There are now approximately 100 shelters scattered from Seattle to suburban New York, but concentrated in Texas and Arizona. They range from old motels to stand-alone homes, from a converted Walmart to a former estate set amid mansions, where on a recent day a deer could be seen prancing through the leafy grounds.
The children arrive with a host of needs, said Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas, a clinical psychologist who helped develop shelter guidelines on behalf of the National Latina/o Psychological Association.
Many children have experienced traumatic events in their home countries, are desperate for stability after the long journey, and have little understanding of American laws — all things that make them particularly vulnerable.
“When a perpetrator is trying to pick a victim they’re picking somebody that they think is less likely to report the abuse,” Chavez-Dueñas said. “Children and youth that are coming from outside of the country, that have no legal status here, that don’t speak English, that don’t have access to lawyers or people who can protect them — they already might think they’re not going to be believed.”
In the back of their minds, she said, is the fear that speaking up could ultimately hurt their immigration case.
The worker who was convicted of molesting the boy in Tucson isn’t the only shelter employee to face criminal charges. Last year, according to court records, a youth care worker at a Homestead, Florida, shelter was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she sent nude photos of herself to a 15-year-old boy who had recently left the shelter and asked him for sex. In 2012, a case manager at a Fullerton, California, shelter was convicted of molesting several teenage boys when they went into his office for regular calls with family, court records show.
The shelters must complete background checks complying with both federal standards and state licensing requirements. They are overseen by an overlapping system of regulators that ostensibly provides a lot of enforcement tools. When incidents occur, shelters are required to alert the police and the ORR. They may also have to notify state agencies that license child-care facilities.
Bob Carey, who was director of ORR from 2015 to 2017, said each week he read through a stack of significant incident reports submitted by the shelters, summarizing everything from behavior problems to allegations of sex between staff and minors. Looking at them over several years, he said, there weren’t many serious incidents that stood out.
“When I was there, the overwhelming majority of what was reported was one kid slapping the butt of another kid in the cafeteria line,” he said. “But you want to make sure that when the more serious incident does happen, that people know what do.”
When there were serious problems, he said, the agency would initiate an investigation that could result in “corrective actions,” ranging from increased monitoring to the termination of the grant. Field staff assigned to the regions where the shelters are located can make unannounced visits day or night. In Texas, licensing officials can also issue fines, order shelters to make changes and ultimately revoke a shelter’s operating license. But in practice, the harshest tools have rarely been used.
Monitoring the shelters can be extremely difficult as the number of unaccompanied children can fluctuate wildly from year to year.
The rise and fall means the shelters are in a constant state of flux, making it difficult to retain and train staff. Last spring, Southwest Key laid off almost 1,000 employees — only to have to ramp up several months later. Current and former employees describe a stressful environment where overstretched and underpaid care workers do the best they can with little training to handle kids in crisis.
“It’s really hard to imagine how difficult it is to quickly ramp up appropriate care for children,” Cancian said. “The more people you have to bring in fast and the less experienced your staff, the more challenges there are to maintain standards.”
In response to the influx in 2014, Carey and other officials developed a plan to restructure the ORR to improve oversight of the unaccompanied minor program by increasing staff and supervision, shifting field employees to regions where new shelters had popped up and trying to resolve longstanding data problems. The plan began to take shape at the end of 2016.
But it’s unclear what happened when the Trump administration took over and initiated a hiring freeze. An HHS spokeswoman would only say that the plan “was never implemented by the last administration” and that “today, operations are constantly reviewed and improved on an ongoing basis.”
Several police reports obtained by ProPublica raise questions about how serious incidents were handled by shelters.
In one case in Tucson in 2015, two female employees told managers that a maintenance supervisor had groped them, tried to pull one of them into a room, and then made a sexual gesture with a broom handle. When no action was taken, an assistant shift leader notified the police.
The employees told police that the assistant program director said he had lost one of women’s statements while another manager told them to “drop it and leave it alone.” The assistant director told police that the company held a sexual harassment class and suspended the maintenance supervisor while it investigated, but couldn’t prove or disprove the allegations because the supervisor denied them. When a police detective asked for copies of the employees’ statements, police records say, a lawyer for Southwest Key refused to provide them.
According to the police report, the employees said they feared that if the maintenance supervisor was “doing this to female employees, who’s to say he’s not doing this or worse to the several hundred female refugees staying at the center.” The man had full access to the building, they told police, and the minors might be hesitant to speak up.
The reports also show that when inappropriate touching or abuse occurred among residents at the Tucson shelter, the staff and police often left it up to minor victims to decide whether to file charges against other children.
The process for reporting and investigating incidents was inconsistent at other shelters as well.
A former employee at KidsPeace in Pennsylvania said that staff members frequently attended police interviews of residents who reported misconduct, potentially creating a conflict of interest. KidsPeace spokesman Bob Martin said the agency’s interactions with police and other governmental entities are “scrupulously conducted” to ensure that neither kids’ “personal well-being nor their legal rights are put at risk while they are in our care.”
At a Southwest Key shelter in Conroe, Texas, in May, a boy told a youth care worker that his mental health counselor brushed his shoulders, rubbed his arm and caressed his face while continually peeking out of the office’s blinds “as if he was checking to see if someone was coming.” The counselor began to unbuckle his own pants, but stopped, the police report said.
The boy later repeated the story to a state child welfare worker. The counselor was suspended during the investigation. But a more formal forensic interview didn’t take place until six days after the incident.
At that point, the police report said, the boy “made no outcry regarding any criminal offense” and the case was closed.
Waiting six days for a forensic interview is not on its face unusual, said David Palmiter, a psychology professor at Marywood University who has conducted forensic interviews of abused children. But he noted that the interview should be done sooner rather than later.
“Everything from legitimate confusion to some calculation of what the consequences could be or whether they would please or hurt the adults around them could impact the child,” he said. “There could be any number of reasons why the story changes.”
A large part of the current pressure on the shelters stems from a series of changes made by the Trump administration in how it handles unaccompanied minors, immigrant advocates say.
As part of an information-sharing agreement, the ORR is now required to provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement with potential sponsors’ names, dates of birth, addresses and fingerprints so that ICE can pull criminal and immigration history information on the sponsor, usually a family member, and all adult members of the sponsor’s household.
Officials say the vetting is being done to protect children. In one case a few years ago, the agency unintentionally turned teenagers over to a smuggling network that forced them to work on an egg farm to pay off their debts.
But immigrant advocates say the policy is deterring family members who are often undocumented from coming forward, leaving children to languish in shelters where they may become increasingly desperate.
The police reports detail repeated calls about runaways.
“It wouldn’t be that difficult for kids to run away from these facilities if they really wanted to,” said Carey, the former ORR director. “But they were expecting to be pretty quickly reunited with a parent or sponsor. That didn’t create a big incentive for them to try to run away.”
As the lengths of stay increase with sponsors less likely to come forward, he said, “that might conceivably create an incentive to voluntarily depart.”
For many of the teens, who may have already run away from gangs in their home countries, as well as predators along the route and the Border Patrol, bolting from the shelters is unsurprising.
In February, a recent arrival at Southwest Key’s Tucson shelter, whom staff and ICE believed was older than he claimed, jumped off a second-floor balcony into the parking lot, climbed a light pole and bounded over the fence.
At the Lincoln Hall Boys’ Haven in the New York suburbs, four boys disappeared in 2016 after being taken to a clinic for X-rays and other medical treatment. Last summer, two boys who were awaiting deportation at the Southwest Key shelter in Conroe, Texas, took off running as a large group of students was being escorted to a class.
According to ORR’s policy guide, agency staff are supposed to assess whether a child is an “escape risk” in deciding whether to place him or her in a more secure setting.
But in most facilities, the kids can’t be forcibly restrained from leaving.
“We are not a detention center,” said Eller, the Southwest Key spokesman. “If a child leaves the property, we cannot force them to stay, but we talk to them and we work with law enforcement to ensure their continued safety.”
Court records describe the Honduran teen by the initials M.A.C. He’d crossed the border in McAllen, Texas, and was taken to the Southwest Key facility in Tucson, where he was told caseworkers would help reunite him with his father in South Carolina. He’d been in the U.S. just five days and the next day was his 16th birthday.
In the dim morning hours that Saturday, a man M.A.C. knew only as Oscar walked into his room, wearing a Southwest Key T-shirt that read “I Love My Job.”
Oscar Trujillo, 46, was one of the first people M.A.C. met when he arrived at the facility on Friday, April 10, 2015. He viewed Oscar as an adult he could trust.
Standing at the boy’s bedside, Trujillo lifted M.A.C.’s blanket and began tickling him on the chest and stomach, according to transcripts of his 2017 trial. The boy testified that he was confused, but he didn’t shout or pull away because he saw Trujillo as a grownup and a teacher.
M.A.C. didn’t know that Trujillo had already violated one of Southwest Key’s major rules by entering the child’s room alone.
“That is something that is instilled in our minds day one,” said Jeff Cotton, a former Southwest Key employee who was the shift supervisor the day Trujillo entered the boy’s room. “Do not be alone with these kids because there could be an instance where you are accused and if you are accused, you want to have a witness.”
Trujillo left the boy’s room, but returned a short time later and lifted the child’s blanket again. He resumed the tickling, but this time he also rubbed M.A.C.’s penis through his clothing, court records show. The boy moved Trujillo’s hand.
“I know what you want, I can give you anything you need,” Trujillo told the boy, according to police records.
Trujillo left the room, and again returned a short time later. Surveillance cameras caught Trujillo entering and exiting M.A.C.’s room alone each time. On his third trip into the boy’s room, Trujillo attempted to lift the child’s boxers and slip his hand in the boy’s underwear, according to trial records.
This time M.A.C. pulled away. Trujillo asked the child not to tell anyone or else his job could be at risk, the records show. The boy, feeling violated and confused, got dressed and stood in line at the cafeteria.
“I felt uncomfortable over everything that had happened,” M.A.C. told a jury last year. “I knew it was something that shouldn’t be happening in a place like that, and I knew that I needed to say something to someone about that, because it was something that was serious. So I asked to speak to my counselor.”
After M.A.C. was interviewed by police and a psychologist, Trujillo was arrested and never returned to the Southwest Key facility.
Trujillo could not be reached for this story, but in court he testified that he went in and out of M.A.C.’s room to give him toiletries and to teach him how to make his bed. Trujillo’s attorneys also claimed that M.A.C. concocted the abuse claim in order to become a candidate for a U-Visa, which allows immigrants who are victims of crimes to remain in the country.
The jury wasn’t convinced. Trujillo was convicted of one count of molestation and sentenced to three years of probation.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that children and youth that are coming from other countries are arriving here and trying to play the system and apply for things that even people that have been here for years don’t know about,” said Chavez-Dueñas, the clinical psychologist, who is also an associate professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, said the problems revealed in the police and court records are to be expected given the “very significant needs” of the children and the staff’s lack of specialized training. His organization has offered its membership’s expertise to assist the facilities.
With such a mismatch in needs and capacity, he said, “You’re more likely to have kids running away. You’re more likely to have incidents of sexual and physical abuse.”
Such a result, Evans said, is “not surprising.”
ProPublica reporters Caroline Chen, Justin Elliott, Lisa Song, Talia Buford, Kavitha Surana, Jodi S. Cohen and Duaa Eldeib and researchers Claire Perlman, Decca Muldowney and Alex Mierjeski contributed to this report.
- ProPublica is an independent, not-for-profit, investigative US online news and features magazine.
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