News

Thousands of migrant children in U.S. shelters allegedly sexually abused

Thousands of accusations of sexual abuse and harassment of migrant children in U.S. government-funded shelters were made over the past four years, including many directed against adult staff members, according to federal data released Tuesday.

Allegations span 4 years between 2014 and 2018

Protesters demonstrate against the separation of migrant children from their families in Los Angeles in June 2018. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Thousands of accusations of sexual abuse and harassment of migrant children in U.S. government-funded shelters were made over the past four years, including many directed against adult staff members, according to federal data released Tuesday.

The cases include allegations of inappropriate touching, staff members allegedly watching minors while they bathed and showing pornographic videos to minors. Some of the allegations included inappropriate conduct by minors in shelters against other minors, as well as by staff members.

Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch released the Health and Human Services Department data during a hearing on the Trump administration's policy of family separations at the border. The data span both the Obama and Trump administrations. The figures were first reported by news site Axios.

From October 2014 to July 2018, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of HHS, received 4,556 complaints. The Department of Justice received an additional 1,303 complaints, including 178 allegations of sexual abuse by adult staff.

Documents released today by the Health and Human Services Department say there were more than 4,500 complaints of alleged sexual abuse of minors at U.S. government-run shelters between 2014 and 2018. (Hans-Maximo Musielik/Associated Press)

HHS officials said the vast majority of allegations weren't substantiated, and they defended their care of children.

"We share the concern," said Jonathan White, an HHS official who was in charge of the effort to reunify children with their parents, testifying before the House judiciary committee on Tuesday.

"Any time a child is abused ... is one time too many. We abide fully with the laws this Congress has passed, and we are very proud of our outstanding track record of full compliance including referring every allegation for investigation. The vast majority of investigations prove to be unsubstantiated."

A woman, identified only as Maria, is reunited with her son Franco, 4, at the El Paso International Airport after being separated for one month when they crossed into the United States. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of tens of thousands of migrant children. More than 2,700 children were separated from their parents at the border over the summer and were placed in shelters. But most of the children in government custody crossed the border alone.

Children are placed in government custody until they can be released to sponsors — usually a parent or close relative — while awaiting immigration proceedings. The shelters are privately run under contracts with the government.

Youth are held for increasingly longer periods of time, currently about two months. As of the first week of February, more than 11,000 migrant toddlers, children and teens were in federal custody as unaccompanied minors, up from about 2,500 detained children three months after Trump took office. Tens of thousands of children cycle through the system each year.

Sexual abuse allegations are reported to federal law enforcement, though it's not clear whether anyone was charged criminally. In many cases, staff members were suspended and eventually fired.

Deutch said the data were clearly alarming.

Salvadoran migrant Epigmenio Centeno holds the hand of his 3-year-old son in Ciudad Juarez after he decided to stay with his children in Mexico due to U.S. President Donald Trump's child separation policy. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

"Together, these documents detail an unsafe environment of sexual assaults by staff on unaccompanied minors," he said.

HHS officials say all allegations must be reported to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Child Protective Services and the FBI, and all allegations involving adults to local law enforcement. The department must co-operate with all investigations.

HHS policy mandates that facilities must provide training to all staff, contractors and volunteers, that background checks be completed on potential employees, and that facilities are prohibited from hiring anyone who has engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior. A November report on one Texas facility by the department's inspector general found was not conducting proper background checks.