Migrant children as young as 11 years old have reported suffering physical and verbal abuse from staff in at least three separate child detention centers after being apprehended at the border, according to multiple lawsuits.
The allegations are in court filings that predate the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy on border crossings, which has separated more than 2,000 children from their parents. But they paint a disturbing picture of what happens to the unaccompanied child migrants who wind up in federal custody.
In affidavits submitted to the court in two federal lawsuits in 2017 and 2018, children in Office of Refugee Resettlement-contracted facilities described being sent to solitary confinement, cursed at by staff and strapped to chairs with bags over their heads after acting out. Some of the children described cutting themselves or attempting suicide.
One Honduran child, identified as D.M. in court filings, arrived at the secured Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia in 2014 after a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and remained locked up there for more than a year.
The guards routinely referred to the migrant children in federal custody as “wetbacks,” D.M. said, according to an affidavit. They joked in English to American children also detained in the facility that the migrants were isolated because they had committed rapes or had HIV.
D.M. had repeated breakdowns and attempted to hurt himself several times, the affidavit said. In response, he said guards would handcuff him, strap his chest and legs to a chair and put a bag over his head with small holes in it.
“Once you’re strapped down, they have total control over you,” D.M. said. “They also put a bag over your head. It has little holes; you can see through it. But you feel suffocated with the bag on.”
“The first thing that came to my head when they put it on me was, ‘They are going to suffocate me. They are going to kill me,’” D.M. said.
The first thing that came to my head ... was, 'They are going to suffocate me. They are going to kill me.' D.M., Honduran immigrant child
When migrant children cross the border, immigration authorities cannot legally keep them detained. The 1997 Flores settlement and subsequent rulings prohibit the detention of children for more than 20 days. Instead, children apprehended at the border are transferred to the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement within three days so the agency can attempt to locate a sponsor.
Most migrant children are then released to a parent or other relative living within the United States.
But some of the children are instead routed into other ORR-contracted facilities. At any given time in recent years, some 200 migrant youths are locked up in long-term facilities like residential treatment centers, staff-secured facilities and secured lockups equivalent to juvenile hall, court filings indicate.
The allegations in the court filings focus on ORR’s two secured facilities ― the Shenandoah Valley center and the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center in California ― as well as the Shiloh Residential Treatment Center in Texas, which has also faced accusations of routinely drugging children with multiple psychotropics and forced injections without consulting their parents as state law requires.
An 11-year-old girl from El Salvador said a teacher at Shiloh repeatedly called her a “dumb ass” and “stupid,” and that other staff members tried to hurt at least twice, according to an affidavit.
“One time a staff member put her two thumbs up to my throat and her hands around my neck. It hurt and I was gasping for breath. The staff member said she was just ‘playing’ but I felt scared,” she said. “I would rather go back to Honduras and live on the streets than be at Shiloh.”
An ongoing lawsuit over the 1997 Flores settlement, which partly governs how child migrants are detained, alleges that ORR’s process for locking kids up is opaque and flawed. Dozens of children wound up in secured lockups last year over Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents’ allegations that they were involved in gangs ― claims later found to lack evidence.
They’ve given no thought to the welfare of these children as they unfolded their no tolerance policy. They’re just shooting from the seat of their pants, making it up as they go along, and lying about what they’re doing half the time. Peter Schey, one of the lawyers representing children in the Flores case
Another boy detained at Shenandoah Valley also described getting repeatedly sent to the chair, oftentimes after getting into fights with guards. He acknowledged that he had behavioral problems and at times fought with staff or other detainees.
“When I was at Shenandoah, at least once a week, I had to fight ― with a guard, another kid, or anybody who wanted to fight me, because I was so angry,” the boy said in an affidavit. “They didn’t tell me anything about what was going on with my case or when I was going to leave. Not knowing anything month after month drove me crazy.”
In one instance, he said staff restrained him in a metal chair for eight hours. On a separate occasion, he remained strapped to the chair so long he urinated on himself.
Another migrant teen from Guatemala was held in multiple federal detention centers, including Shiloh and Yolo, according to court filings. Though he allegedly suffered physical abuse and witnessed forced medical injections at Shiloh, he said Yolo was even worse.
“The guards also push us, pepper spray us, and place the handcuffs excessively tight ― to the point that wrist injuries frequently occur,” he said. “The detention center makes me feel like an animal.”
Although the cases detailed in court filings predate Trump’s now largely abandoned family separation policy, Peter Schey, one of the lawyers representing children in the Flores case, said shunting more than 2,000 new children into ORR custody will only worsen the problems children face in federal facilities.
“It is clearly not sustainable,” Schey told HuffPost. “They have no plans where to house these children, how to house these children, how to care for these children ― most importantly, how to reunite these children with their parents.”
“They’ve given no thought to the welfare of these children as they unfolded their no tolerance policy,” he continued. “They’re just shooting from the seat of their pants, making it up as they go along, and lying about what they’re doing half the time.”
The lawyers in the Flores lawsuit are asking a federal judge to halt the forced medications and create a more transparent process for kids to dispute their transfer to secured facilities. U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee has yet to rule in the case.
On Thursday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered an investigation into abuse claims against Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center after The Associated Press first reported on them a day earlier.
Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center and Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center declined to comment about the lawsuits. Representatives for the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Shiloh Residential Treatment Center did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment regarding abuse allegations.