Immigrant youth vulnerable to abuse in Puget Sound area centers

Federally-funded facilities struggle to maintain health and safety of minors stuck in limbo

Last October, a 17-year-old boy from Honduras hid in his room after making a routine bathroom trip at the Selma R. Carson Home, a staff-secure facility for unaccompanied minors in Fife, Washington. A staff member searched for the boy in the bathroom, then entered his room to check under the bed and inspect the window to ensure that it was secure. The boys, ages 12-17, are under close supervision, although they’re not held in jail-like cells.

Staff and the 17-year-old resident’s accounts of the afternoon then diverge, according to a police report filed a few days later.

The boy alleged that he was hiding under a blanket atop the mattress when the staff member pulled back the covers and “touched him on his genitalia,” a Child Protective Services (CPS) worker wrote in an intake report filed an hour later.

When police arrived at the facility four days later to investigate the CPS referral, the boy had already been transferred to a juvenile detention center in California “due to his criminal history and problems he was causing at Selma Carson including damage to property,” a Fife police officer wrote in the case report. The staff member denied the allegation, insisting to police that he had found the boy hiding under a blanket that was wedged between a mattress and the wall. He told the officer that he had removed the blanket from the fully-clothed boy, then shook his head in disapproval as he walked out of the room. The boy had a reputation for hiding from staff members, the subject explained to the police.

The staff member — whose identity is being withheld because he was never charged with a crime — remains employed at the facility nearly a year after the sexual assault allegation.

Selma R. Carson Home is run by Pioneer Human Services, a Seattle-based nonprofit that holds a $2.8 million contract with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to hold unaccompanied youth. Pioneer Human Services maintains that it follows a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse or harassment, neglect and exploitation at its facilities.

“Our highest priority is to ensure safety and a healthy atmosphere for all youth living in our residential programs and we take any accusation very seriously,” Pioneer Human Services Communications Manager Nanette Sorich wrote in an email. “The incident you are referring to … was investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) and the police, and the result of the investigation was found to be invalid.”

Although last year’s investigation was dropped, the case was one of nearly 200 incidents dating back to Jan. 1, 2017 gleaned from police reports and call logs relating to three federally-funded nonprofit facilities in Washington that house 12- to 17-year-old immigrants. Call logs from ORR-funded facilities including Fife’s Selma R. Carson Home, Renton’s Friends of Youth, and Seattle’s Casa de los Amigos — run by nonprofit YouthCare — excluded the names of minors and didn’t distinguish which incidents involved undocumented youth or the U.S. citizens who attend the organizations’ other programs.

It is also unclear if the immigrant youth in the reports were separated from their parents at the border, although most of the incidents occurred before U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions officially announced the “zero tolerance” policy on May 7.

The reports obtained through public records requests detail missing children, suicide attempts, assaults and allegations of rape off of the premises — and reveal harrowing glimpses into the years of trauma that have already beset unaccompanied immigrants and youth in the nonprofits’ other programs during their short lives.

For over a decade, these facilities have hosted unaccompanied immigrant youth while their cases went through the immigration courts. While designed to be temporary, some of the programs have transformed into long-term residences for immigrant minors who remain in the state following the separation from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of the Trump administration’s rescinded family separation policy.

According to Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) — an organization that provides legal representation to unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children — four such immigrant youth remain in ORR-funded facilities in the state nearly two months after the July 26 court-ordered deadline to reunite separated youth between 5-17 years old with their families or sponsors. Some of their parents have been deported or remain in the custody of federal marshals, making their cases more complicated to process. Half of the four children are located at the Casa de los Amigos shelter in Seattle, according to YouthCare VP and Development and Communications officer Jody Waits, while the whereabouts of the other two are unclear.

While the four immigrant youth remain in the state’s ORR-funded facilities, the health and safety of the youth has become of paramount concern to immigration attorneys and advocates who fear that recently proposed changes to a court agreement that sets detention standards for children in custody could further jeopardize their well-being.

On Sept. 7, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a regulation that would supersede the 1997 Flores settlement — an agreement that limits the amount of time immigrant minors can spend in detention centers to 20 days — by detaining families together during their immigration proceedings for an indefinite amount of time. Under the Flores settlement, minors are held in the least restrictive facilities as appropriate for the individual.

Upending the protections guaranteed in the Flores settlement could affect the conditions of the facilities in which the immigrant youth in Washington are held, warned Jen Podkul, KIND director of policy, in an email.

“The regulations eliminate many of the protections that afford minimum standards of detention for children detained by ORR in WA. It would allow the federal government more flexibility in how they hold children, and remove the safety valve that is currently in place (judicial oversight) for when conditions are inappropriate for children,” Podkul wrote.

Furthermore, the new regulation could change the way that minors’ immigration cases proceed once they leave detention.

“For children who have been released to detention and are living with a parent or guardian in WA state while they go through their immigration court case, it would change the procedures by which their cases will be heard,” Podkul wrote. “Instead of more child appropriate procedures, these children’s cases will be treated like adult cases — making it only harder for them to make a legal claim for protection.”

An HHS Administration for Children and Families (ACF) spokesperson wrote in an email that the office that oversees the unaccompanied minors program had “no further information” about whether rescinding the protections offered by the Flores settlement would in fact change the conditions of Washington facilities housing immigrant youth.

Yet the ACF spokesperson maintained that ORR doesn’t tolerate any forms of child mistreatment at its grantee-funded facilities, requiring that provider facilities act “quickly to address any alleged violations of policy, including initiating employee disciplinary action, termination, or reporting to law enforcement agencies and any relevant licensing bodies.”

Care providers are required to report incidents ranging from verbal threats exchanged between youth to allegations of sexual abuse by submitting an incident report to ORR within four hours of becoming aware of the incident. Severe incidents must be reported to Child Protective Services, law enforcement, or the state licensing agency.

As the demand to care for immigrant youth has grown in recent years, HHS has expanded its network to 100 shelters in 17 states including Washington. The rise in ORR-funded facilities has led to additional challenges in maintaining the health and safety of the minors in their care.

Companies that house immigrant youth throughout the country are already under fire for exposing minors to abuse and mistreatment. For instance, a recent Reveal investigation showed that from 2014 to 2018, ORR provided $1.5 billion in grants to private companies that were accused of serious child mistreatment, including sexual and physical abuse.

The contract services at Selma R. Carson Home and other nonprofits have only ramped up over time, owing to the 70,000 children fleeing conflict in Central American countries who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. The addition of over 2,500 immigrant youth nationwide who were separated from their families this year further burdened the system of ORR-funded facilities.

In 2018, the foster and therapeutic staff-secure care facility Friends of Youth received about $4.5 million in federal grants, up from about $2.4 million in 2015. Meanwhile, Pioneer Human Services was granted about $2.8 million in federal funding for Selma R. Carson Home in 2018, compared to about $2.1 million in 2015. YouthCare received about $1.7 million for its Casa de los Amigos program in 2018, while it was granted about $1.4 million in 2015.

The October 2017 case at Selma R. Carson Home was the only police report detailing the alleged sexual assault of an immigrant youth by a staff member out of the more than 250 pages of documents received in response to public records requests. However, such allegations are not uncommon in other facilities throughout the country.

In a July report, ProPublica noted at least 125 sex offense allegations in call logs from over 70 of the 100 ORR-funded facilities. And it’s likely that there are more incidents that have gone unreported.

“When a perpetrator is trying to pick a victim, they’re picking somebody that they think is less likely to report the abuse,” clinical psychologist Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas told ProPublica. “Children and youth that are coming from outside of the country, that have no legal status here, that don’t speak English, that don’t have access to lawyers or people who can protect them — they already might think they’re not going to be believed.”

Police reports at other Washington facilities showed the interconnected web of immigrant youth shelters and how the effects of one program could trickle down to another. For instance, a February 2017 police report concerning Casa de los Amigos revealed that a 17-year-old Honduran fled from the short-term shelter, the least restrictive in the state, by jumping out of a window. A log about two months later detailed that the missing subject was listed as a possible victim in an alleged unlawful touching that had occurred on the premises of a Fife facility. Although it’s unclear when the incident occurred (and the name of the facility was redacted), Selma R. Carson Home is the only ORR-funded facility in Fife.

Jody Waits of YouthCare said that the care providers at the Casa de los Amigos program report runaways to the authorities immediately. For minor care in general, the facility takes a number of factors into consideration to assess how best to serve the child: “…there is some recognition of the unique young person (history and community connections, progress and stability, if there is caution that they are likely to harm themselves… etc.) and if that produces an immediate call to the essential authorities. Should a young person be in an extremely unsafe space or likely to be, or we believe they are a danger to themselves — the call is immediate,” Waits wrote in a follow-up email. “If we have fielded a phone call (or other contact) from the young person, that helps us know where they are and if there is danger/caution in that space (or not), and how we can help or re-engage them in returning to safety and services — or offer transportation back to care — the focus may start by ensuring the youth stays in contact and holds an ongoing relationship with the team.”

But even in that context, the care providers have a maximum window of four hours to notify the authorities.

Some of the reports also detailed incidents that occurred off of the premises or in the residents’ home countries. For instance, two rape allegations in 2017 police report excerpts concerning Friends of Youth residents had happened well before the youth arrived at the facility, said Friends of Youth President and CEO Terry Pottmeyer.

“We have not had any allegations of a rape that’s occurred at our facility. Full stop,” Pottmeyer said. However, the care providers do have an obligation to file incident reports when a child shares the details of a rape that happened at their country of origin or outside of the facility. They then help the child process the trauma through behavioral counseling.

As the staff at their facilities continue to navigate a beleaguered system, Waits and Pottmeyer said that they are committed to providing the highest standard of care to the youth who remain stuck in limbo.

“We are so proud to be able to help these young people. It’s heartbreaking—most of the children that we serve have not been separated from their families, they came over the border unaccompanied,” Pottmeyer said. “We really feel like it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to take them into a safe space and to help them work through the trauma that they’ve experienced in the system.”