One More Reason the Detention of Underage Migrants Needs to End: Thousands of Sexual Abuse Allegations

Since October 2014, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has received several thousand allegations from migrant children who claim to have been sexually abused while being detained in migrant detention centers, according to a report released by the Department of Health and Human Services. Congressman Ted Deutch brought this report to light this week at a congressional hearing covering the Trump administration’s immigration policy of family separation. The abuse occurred during both the Obama and Trump administration, but there was an increase following the current administration’s zero tolerance policy.

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Of over 4,500 allegations from minors who were either unaccompanied or separated from their parents before being brought into shelters, about 1,300 warranted further investigation by the FBI. “The vast majority of allegations prove to be unfounded when they are investigated by state law enforcement and federal law enforcement and the state licensure authorities to whom we refer them,” said Jonathan White at the hearing. White is the commander of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

Even so, NPR reported that nearly 200 of the allegations were waged against the adult staff members at the shelter who were directly responsible for the children while in custody. “The complaints range from inappropriate romantic relationships between children and adults, to touching genitals, to watching children shower,” said NPR’s John Burnett. White clarified that the government routinely works with contractors to staff the shelters, distancing his department’s staff from the claims of abuse. Abuse also took place between detained minors.

Detaining Migrant Children Jeopardizes Their Safety

Senior members of the Trump administration defended the policy of family separation, even among asylum seekers, as a way to protect migrant children from harm, justifying separation “if the child may be at risk with the parent or legal guardian,” per Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a press briefing last summer. In light of this latest report chronicling sexual abuse in the shelters, it’s hardly a stretch to say that many of these children would have been safer in the care of their parent or guardian.

Sexual Abuse Detention Centers
Photo Credit Denver 7 Published on Feb 4, 2019

“If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” warned a director of child and adolescent psychiatry in an interview with ProPublica last July, who was concerned that traumatized minors would be especially vulnerable to abuse while in the shelters. That concern holds true in the broader context of migrant detention. A recent study of migrant shelters in Europe also found that children, detained without a guardian, were subject to sexual abuse. “[The] current situation is evidence not of a migration crisis per se, but of a crisis in child protection,” its authors concluded.

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