Recently revealed internal documents from the Department of Health and Human Services show that sexual abuse of immigrant youth in federal detention is rampant. According to the documents, which were provided to Axios, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement received 4,556 complaints of alleged sexual abuse against unaccompanied minors who were in ORR’s care between October 2014 and July 2018, and the Department of Justice received 1,303. Of those filed to the DOJ, 178 of the complaints alleged that minors were sexually abused by staff at detention facilities; the bulk of the complaints alleged they were abused by other detained youth.
According to Axios, “Allegations against staff members reported to the DOJ included everything from rumors of relationships with [unaccompanied minors] to showing pornographic videos to minors to forcibly touching minors’ genitals.” The documents were sent to the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year, and were provided to Axios by Representative Ted Deutch of Florida.
These numbers point to a reality that has been clear for a long time: that putting immigrants in detention creates conditions that are ripe for abuse and exploitation. The HHS numbers echo a ProPublica report from July 2018 that found hundreds of incidents of abuse at ORR-run shelters housing immigrant children, from sexual abuse to other violent incidents. In 2017, one worker at a Southwest Key detention center in Mesa, Arizona was charged with sexually abusing at least eight immigrant boys under his care, and last year, another worker at a Phoenix shelter run by Southwest Key was arrested after he was alleged to have molested a 14-year-old girl. As Lisa Fortuna, the director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, told ProPublica at the time of the ORR shelter system report: “If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine.”
In response to the numbers released by Axios, HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley stressed that there are “rigorous standards” and that “background checks of all facility employees” are mandatory. “These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and ORR fully understands its responsibility to ensure that each child is treated with the utmost care,” Oakley said. “When any allegations of abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect are made, they are taken seriously and ORR acts swiftly to investigate and respond.” But recent reporting by various news outlets, as well as an audit conducted by HHS’s inspector general in 2018, found that staff at detention facilities and shelters for immigrant youth were often hired without background checks, or the background checks were incomplete.
House Democrats say they plan to hold HHS accountable for the treatment of immigrant youth under the agency’s care. “This behavior—it’s despicable, it’s disgusting, and this is just the start of questions that HHS is going to have to answer about how they handle these and what’s happening in these facilities,” Deutch told Axios.