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07/31/2015 06:41 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2017

Lawyers Claim Medical Neglect At ICE Family Detention Centers

Woman with broken bones told to "drink water," attorneys allege.
Drew Anthony Smith via Getty Images

Women locked up with their children at family detention centers in Texas have been repeatedly subjected to medical neglect, alleges a complaint lodged Thursday with the Department of Homeland Security.

The letter, sent by the CARA pro bono project, which represents women and children in family detention, to the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties outlines 10 cases of alleged medical neglect at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center. The complaint marks another blow to the Obama administration’s controversial policy of detaining immigrant families, a week after a federal judge said the practice is illegal and should be discontinued.

Medical staff routinely told women and children at the Dilley facility to “drink more water,” even when they showed up with symptoms including broken bones, severe weight loss and fainting spells, attorneys said in the letter. Detainees seeking treatment waited up to 14 hours to speak to a health professional, sometimes receiving no medication or little follow-up treatment, says the letter, which appears in full below.

“Mothers and children often enter the detention centers with injuries or illnesses that remain untreated throughout the duration of their detention,” the letter reads. “The detention of sick mothers and children, when they could be released to families, friends or community-based organizations willing to take them in, is inhumane.”

One of the women, identified by the pseudonym “Yaniret,” said she took her 5-year-old daughter for medical treatment at the Karnes family detention center in early May, after noting an odd vaginal secretion. The doctor said he would swab the outer area of the child’s vagina, but instead forced a probe into her, making her scream from pain. The doctor wrote a prescription for antibiotics to treat the infection, but Yaniret couldn’t get the medicine at the detention center.

Weeks later, the child refused to be examined by a different doctor because of her bad experience, the letter says. In June, Yaniret and her daughter went with a woman from the Honduran consulate to an outside clinic, where a doctor once again prescribed medicine that Yaniret says she couldn’t obtain at the detention center. When she showed a journalist a diaper stained with her daughter’s untreated secretion, guards at the center punished Yaniret by denying her food, the letter says.

Another woman, identified as “Jessica,” fled Honduras with her two children, aged 4 and 6, after being targeted by the M-18 gang. She arrived at the center suffering from painful breast cancer but medical staff declined to see her, saying that they were only there to treat children, Jessica said. She later developed a severe headache that caused nine days of repeated vomiting. She has lost 13 pounds since being detained, according to CARA.

A woman called "Melinda" arrived at the detention center with broken bones in her hand resulting from five days of repeated beatings and rape after she was kidnapped by a gang in El Salvador, the letter says. A doctor instructed her to drink water.

In response to the letter, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Richard Rocha emailed The Huffington Post a statement saying the agency operates family detention centers transparently and that the facilities have medical care, play rooms and social workers. 

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care,” the statement says. “The agency is committed to ensuring that individuals housed in our family residential centers receive timely and appropriate medical health care.”

Both detention centers mentioned in the complaint are run as for-profit enterprises by private prison contractors. Corrections Corporation of America runs the Dilley facility, while the GEO Group runs the detention center at Karnes. Both companies have issued several statements denying wrongdoing and referring further questioning to ICE.

Allegations of neglect and other abuses have plagued the family detention system since the Obama administration expanded it last year. In another case earlier this month, a mother who fled Honduras after a gang threatened to kill her daughter said her child vomited blood for a week without receiving medication or being released from detention. Celina Gutiérrez Cruz and her 6-year-old daughter have passed initial screening for withholding of deportation -- a form of relief similar to asylum -- but ICE has refused to release them from detention. Both of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a psychological evaluation.

CARA filed a writ of habeas corpus Thursday demanding that ICE release Gutiérrez, who has been detained since January.

“This is a very rare and rarely needed step,” Andrew Free, an attorney who works with CARA to represent detainees, told HuffPost. “Prolonged detention habeas corpus petitions are usually filed when people have been held in detention when facing criminal charges… But we think there is an urgent, pressing need to have an independent, federal judge look at this detention.”

The Obama administration largely abandoned the policy of locking up immigrant families in detention in 2009, but ramped it up once more last year during an unprecedented influx of unaccompanied minors and female-headed families crossing to the U.S., mostly from the violence-plagued Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

A federal judge ruled earlier this month, however, that the policy violates the 1997 Flores settlement, which requires the federal government to detain undocumented children in the least restrictive setting possible and to adopt a “general policy favoring release.” The government has until Aug. 3 to respond to the ruling.  

The allegations of abuse and neglect, coupled with the adverse court ruling, have made family detention unpopular among many Democrats. Some 178 Democratic members of the House of Representatives issued a letter Friday calling for the Obama administration to eliminate it.

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