U.S. senators call for investigation of sex abuse reports in migrant shelters

A Southwest Key facility in Glendale. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

Two U.S. Senators are calling for an investigation of “an alleged widespread and long-term pattern of sexual abuse against unaccompanied children” in federally contracted facilities that hold migrant minors.

Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee — wrote to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General to investigate allegations of physical and sexual abuse against migrant children held in privately run shelters.  

Grassley and Feinstein said they are “deeply concerned” that children in the more than 100 facilities where HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement places minors who arrived in the country alone to seek protections “are not adequately shielded from sexual violence.”

The demand for an investigation comes a week after HHS released documents showing the scope of sexual abuse allegation at shelters for migrant minors. Between October 2014 and July 2018, ORR received 4,556 reports of alleged sexual abuse. Many were closed without investigation. There were arrests in others case while some allegations were investigated, but no wrongdoing was found.

“Recent public reports allege that many cases of sexual assault in child care centers are not fully investigated by HHS,” Grassley and Feinstein wrote. “We find it intolerable and inexcusable that child care operators are not immediately investigating reports, contacting and fully assisting law enforcement, preserving evidence, and demanding justice for these children.”

Specifically, the senators asked federal auditors to look at evidence of sexual assault and violence in all facilities; review if HHS and its contractors for migrant youth shelters are following best practices to handle allegations of sexual abuse; and determine which factors “are contributing to the widespread pattern of abuse against unaccompanied children and what can be done to stop these assaults and bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.”

Federal policy dictates that HHS’s inspector general be notified of allegations of sexual abuse committed in ORR-funded care facilities.

A ProPublica investigation of hundreds of police reports of sexual assaults at shelters for migrant minors nationally found “responding officers simply filed brief information reports about the incidents, without investigating them as potential crimes.”

In one Arizona case involving physical abuse allegations against three minors in a Southwest Key facility in Youngtown, which HHS shut down due to those reports, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies didn’t interview the facility’s employees, nor the minors involved, and the cases were closed after only viewing security camera footage. Sheriff Paul Penzone later acknowledged that case fell through the cracks twice.

A local group, the Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition, has called for more state oversight of Southwest Key facilities. The company has the largest network of migrant youth shelters nationally and in Arizona. The demands include reforms to prevent abuse and maltreatment, and the creation of an independent community advisory board.

The Arizona Senate unanimously approved legislation to apply some changes on how the state regulates migrant youth shelters last week. The proposal would add background check requirements, require facilities to add child abuse reports to a state registry maintained by the Arizona Department of Child Safety, and allow state health regulators to have discretion to inspect federally run residential facilities that provide behavioral health services to children.

Tesia Williams, a spokeswoman for HHS’s Office of the Inspector General, said in a statement that the agency has an ongoing national review of the program for unaccompanied children. That review includes “evaluating ORR and ORR-funded care facilities’ identification and response to reported allegations of harm,” she said.  

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.


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