Last week, immigrant rights advocates told The Nation that a 6-year-old girl who had been forcibly separated from her mother as a result of the Trump Administration's “zero-tolerance” policy was sexually abused not once, but twice. The detention facility, located near Phoenix, Arizona, is operated by a “non-profit” organization known as Southwest Key Programs, which runs 26 such facilities for unaccompanied minor children.
Their people came up with a solution for the young victim, identified only as “DL.” She was simply told to keep away from her abuser. DL was then required to sign a form acknowledging that she had been warned; the form says “it is my responsibility to follow the safety plan.” The girl's father, who lives in California, was informed of the situation and assured that it would not happen again – but within days, he received a telephone call telling him his daughter had been abused a second time.
The perpetrator, an older boy, had been having inappropriate contact with other girls as well. According to a report by Texas Monthly, Southwest Key Programs has been issued several hundred citations for safety violations and inadequate supervision that has resulted in violent incidents. Despite the organization's record, it will receive $458 million in federal payments for housing immigrant youth who have been separated from their parents.
As appalling as this story is, it is but the tip of a very large and ugly iceberg – and it has been going on for a very long time. According to police reports obtained by ProPublica, local law enforcement agencies have received no fewer than 125 reports of sexual abuse over the past five years from facilities housing immigrant minor children.
The number is likely to be far higher than that: 200 additional reports from other shelters for at-risk children do not indicate whether or not the victim were immigrants. However, those numbers pale compared with the number of sexual abuse claims received by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Over 1300 incidents were reported between 2013 and 2017 – and even ICE acknowledges that the actual number may be much greater.
There is another factor strongly suggesting more abuse is going on: children who have been separated from their parents may not report the incidents out of fear that they will not be reunited with their families.
The abuse is perpetrated not only by older children and adults being held in those facilities. Staff members have also been guilty. Lisa Fortuna, a child psychiatrist at Boston Medical Center, says, “If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine. You have full access and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.”
Thanks to a recent court order, 1,800 migrant families have been reunited. DL and her parents are among them. However, the damage has been done. DL's mother says her daughter initially failed to recognize her, thinking she was another social worker. Even though the girl is recovering from her trauma, her mother says, “She is still...following the rules of the detention center...she behaves like she is programmed.” DL is still terrified of being sent back . “She says, ‘Please don’t return me to Guatemala, I don’t want to go back to that place where I have to sleep alone with the other kids’,” her mother reports.
Regardless of when and how these children are returned to their families, they will carry the scars of their abuse for a lifetime – and we as a society will surely reap the bitter harvest, one way or another.