7. Flawed Investigations of Sexual Assaults in Children’s Immigrant Shelters

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Hundreds of police reports document allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America began in 2014, according to a December 2018 report by ProPublica. The report, based on six months of research that included reviewing internal documents obtained through public records requests, revealed “a largely hidden side of the shelters—one in which both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.” ProPublica noted that these shelters have received $4.5 billion in government funding for housing and other services.

ProPublica’s review of hundreds of police reports showed that, “again and again,” police were “quickly—and with little investigation—closing the cases, often within days, or even hours.” The number of cases of sexual assaults of immigrant children in shelters is likely greater than ProPublica could document, as records from shelters in Texas, “where the largest number of immigrant children are held,” could not be obtained due to state laws in Texas that ban child abuse reports from being made public.

Noting “startling lapses” in how federal and state authorities investigated allegations of sexual assaults, ProPublica reported that, in many cases, responding officers filed brief information reports without investigating incidents as potential crimes. Because immigrant children in detention are frequently moved, a child could be moved out of the investigating agency’s jurisdiction in just a few weeks, often without warning, even when an investigator wanted to pursue a case. When children are released, parents or relatives may be reluctant to seek justice, avoiding contact with law enforcement because they are undocumented or living with someone who is.

A February 2019 article, based on Department of Health and Human Services documents given to Axios by Congressman Ted Deutch, appears to corroborate ProPublica’s findings. As Axios reported, “From October 2014 to July 2018, the HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement received 4,556 complaints, and the Department of Justice received 1,303 complaints” of sexual abuse against unaccompanied minors in US government custody. Of the cases reported to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in that time period, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) reported that other minors were perpetrators in 851 cases and adult staff accounted for 178 allegations of sexual abuse. The Axios article noted that the type of perpetrator was only known for cases that the ORR reported to the DOJ.

This topic has received some corporate news coverage, including reports by CBS News and the New York Times. However, in contrast with ProPublica’s coverage, those reports have not highlighted shortcomings in investigations of alleged sexual abuse or the lack of support for survivors following their abuse. The New York Times article, which provided substantial coverage, acknowledged that documents showing the number of sexual abuse complaints in government-funded detention facilities were “first reported by Axios.” USA Today published an article by Michael Grabell and Topher Sanders, based on their ProPublica report.

Michael Grabell, Topher Sanders, and Silvina Sterin Pensel, “In Immigrant Children’s Shelters, Sexual Assault Cases are Open and Shut,” ProPublica, December 21, 2018, https://www.propublica.org/article/boystown-immigrant-childrens-shelter-sexual-assault.

Caitlin Owens, Stef W. Kight, and Harry Stevens, “Thousands of Migrant Youth Allegedly Suffered Sexual Abuse in U.S. Custody,” Axios, February 26, 2019, updated February 27, 2019, https://www.axios.com/immigration-unaccompanied-minors-sexual-assault-3222e230-29e1-430f-a361-d959c88c5d8c.html.

Student Researchers: Austin Barcus, Maria Granados, Angel Palominos, and Carina Ramirez (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (Sonoma State University)