Mi­grant kids sep­a­rated at bor­der faced abuse in fos­ter homes

The Saline Courier - - NEWS - As­so­ci­ated Press

SANTA ANA, Cal­i­for­nia — This story is part of an on­go­ing joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­tween The As­so­ci­ated Press and the PBS se­ries FRONT­LINE on the treat­ment of mi­grant chil­dren, which in­cludes an up­com­ing film.


After lo­cal Gu­atemalan of­fi­cials burned down an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist’s home, he de­cided to leave his vil­lage be­hind and flee to the United States, hop­ing he’d be granted asy­lum and his lit­tle boy, whose heart was fail­ing, would re­ceive life­sav­ing med­i­cal care.

But after crossing the bor­der into Ari­zona in May of last year, Bor­der Pa­trol agents tore the man’s 7-year-old son from his arms and sent the fa­ther nearly 2,000 miles (3,220 kilo­me­ters) away to a de­ten­tion cen­ter in Ge­or­gia. The boy, now 8, went into a U.s.-funded fos­ter home for mi­grant chil­dren in New York.

The fos­ter care pro­grams are meant to pro­vide mi­grant chil­dren with care while au­thor­i­ties work to con­nect them with par­ents, relatives or other spon­sors. But in­stead the boy told a coun­selor he was re­peat­edly sex­u­ally mo­lested by other boys in the fos­ter home.

A re­view of 38 le­gal claims ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press — some of which have never been made pub­lic — shows tax­pay­ers could be on the hook for more than $200 mil­lion in dam­ages from par­ents who said their chil­dren were harmed while in govern­ment cus­tody.

The fa­ther and son are among dozens of fam­i­lies — sep­a­rated at the bor­der as part of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s zero tol­er­ance pol­icy — who are now pre­par­ing to sue the fed­eral govern­ment, in­clud­ing sev­eral who say their young chil­dren were sex­u­ally, phys­i­cally or emo­tion­ally abused in fed­er­ally funded fos­ter care.

With more than 3,000 mi­grant chil­dren taken from their par­ents at the bor­der in re­cent years, many law­suits are ex­pected, po­ten­tially to­tal­ing in the bil­lions. Fam­i­lies who spoke to the AP and FRONT­LINE did so on the con­di­tion of anonymity over fears about their fam­i­lies’ safety.

“How is it pos­si­ble that my son was suf­fer­ing these things?” the fa­ther said. “My son is lit­tle and couldn’t de­fend him­self.”

The fam­i­lies — some in the U.S., oth­ers al­ready de­ported to Cen­tral Amer­ica — are rep­re­sented by grass­roots im­mi­gra­tion clin­ics and non­profit groups, along with some of the coun­try’s most pow­er­ful law firms. They’re mak­ing claims un­der the Fed­eral Tort Claims Act as a pre­cur­sor to fil­ing law­suits. The FTCA al­lows in­di­vid­u­als who suf­fer harm as a di­rect re­sult of fed­eral em­ploy­ees to sue the govern­ment.

“It’s the tip of the ice­berg,” said Erik Walsh, an at­tor­ney at Arnold & Porter, which has one of the world’s lead­ing pro bono pro­grams.

The firm has so far filed 18 claims on be­half of nine fam­i­lies, to­tal­ing $54 mil­lion, and Walsh says dozens more are likely com­ing.

The govern­ment has six months to settle FTCA claims from the time they’re filed. After that, the claimants are free to file fed­eral law­suits.

The de­part­ments of Jus­tice and Home­land Se­cu­rity — both named in claims — did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

In a state­ment, Health and Hu­man Ser­vices — the agency re­spon­si­ble for the care of mi­grant chil­dren — said it does not re­spond to pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion and that it serves chil­dren in a com­pas­sion­ate and or­ga­nized man­ner through its Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment.

“The im­por­tant work hap­pen­ing in each of the fa­cil­i­ties and pro­grams in the ORR net­work around the coun­try — work ORR has done suc­cess­fully since 2003 — takes an ex­pe­ri­enced team of com­pe­tent, hard­work­ing men and women ded­i­cated to the wel­fare of the chil­dren,” HHS spokesman Mark Weber said. “We treat the chil­dren in our care with dig­nity and re­spect.”

Last year, the Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment cared for nearly 50,000 chil­dren who crossed the bor­der by them­selves, as well as chil­dren who were sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies un­der the zero tol­er­ance pol­icy. The agency housed them in fos­ter pro­grams, res­i­den­tial shel­ters and de­ten­tion camps around the coun­try, some­times mak­ing daily place­ments of as many as 500 new ar­rivals, from ba­bies to teens.

The al­le­ga­tions of abuse and as­saults in fos­ter care raise fresh ques­tions about the govern­ment’s ef­forts to place younger chil­dren with fam­i­lies in lieu of larger shel­ters and packed de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties.

The le­gal claims, a re­cent fed­eral court fil­ing and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices doc­u­ments re­leased by Congress ear­lier this year al­lege that chil­dren have suf­fered se­ri­ous emo­tional trauma after be­ing phys­i­cally harmed or fon­dled by other chil­dren while in fos­ter care.

Six of the claims for dam­ages in­volve chil­dren who were in fos­ter care. And one re­cent court fil­ing refers to a mi­grant child be­ing abused in fos­ter care.

The records re­leased by Congress show the Of­fice of Refugee Re­set­tle­ment re­ferred at least seven fos­ter care al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual abuse to the Jus­tice Depart­ment in 2017 and 2018. Be­cause some are anony­mous to pro­tect the chil­dren’s pri­vacy, it’s un­clear if some of the claims are du­pli­cates.

Jus­tice has not re­sponded to re­peated queries about those cases from mem­bers of Congress.

Three of the four in­ci­dents in­volv­ing phys­i­cal harm out­lined in le­gal fil­ings oc­curred at Cayuga Cen­ters in New York, the largest fos­ter care place­ment for mi­grant chil­dren, hous­ing up to 900 ba­bies and chil­dren at a time. The kids are sup­posed to be placed with Span­ish-speak­ing fam­i­lies who are paid $1,000 per month per child.

Cayuga Cen­ters did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

In one Cayuga home, a fos­ter par­ent found a lit­tle girl be­ing forced to touch an­other child’s pri­vate parts and kiss her on the lips, ac­cord­ing to a memo sub­mit­ted as part of a fed­eral law­suit re­lated to fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion.

The girl was 3 when im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials took her from her fa­ther in March, after they’d crossed the bor­der in Texas. As a re­sult of her trauma, the lit­tle girl be­gan to regress in fos­ter care, hav­ing dif­fi­culty eat­ing, drink­ing and us­ing the toi­let, ac­cord­ing to her at­tor­ney. The girl was sent back to Hon­duras on Wed­nes­day, a month after her fa­ther was de­ported.

One Gu­atemalan mother whose 5-year-old daugh­ter was placed in Cayuga last year says her lit­tle girl still wakes up cry­ing from what she en­dured at the fos­ter home.

“Now she’s scared each time we go out or when she sees a po­lice car or some­one in uni­form,” said the mother, who has filed a $6 mil­lion claim. “She says ‘Mami, don’t let them sep­a­rate us again.’”

An­other 5-year-old Gu­atemalan girl said a boy grabbed her chest and touched her in­ap­pro­pri­ately, both in her fos­ter home and dur­ing day­time classes at a Safe Haven for Chil­dren New York fos­ter pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to a $3 mil­lion in­jury claim. The girl was moved to a new fos­ter home, but there she suf­fered ver­bal abuse from her fos­ter par­ent’s mother, who called her names and locked her alone in rooms as pun­ish­ment, ac­cord­ing to the claim.

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