Sexual Abuse Allegations in Arizona Immigration Shelters

Laura Ashley Powell
Staff Writer

News_Laura Ashley_Detention Center Abuse_Saramirk, Wikimedia Commons

PC: MaryKent Wolff

Three minors from El Salvador who were housed in an Arizona shelter while separated from their parents during the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy were allegedly abused sexually by shelter workers. Salvadoran officials told the Associated Press that they received these reports from three children between the ages of 12 and 17.

“The psychological and emotional impact is forever,” stated Liduvina Magarin, a deputy of foreign relations minister, to the Associated Press. “They are sexual violations, sexual abuses, that is what this is about.”

Magarin also stated that the families of the victims will have the ability to take legal action through lawyers provided by the Salvadoran government. When the children are reunited with their parents, they will be able to receive psychological assistance to heal from the abuse.

This July, ProPublica published a report where they obtained police records concerning 70 of the approximately 100 shelters housing undocumented children. The police reports recorded hundreds of alleged fights, missing children and nearly 125 calls claiming sexual offenses in the shelters. It’s not possible to tell how many of these children were a part of the many separated from their parents at the border.

According to ProPublica, psychologists who have worked with these children say that the numbers of sexual abuses is likely much higher, since many of the children are unwilling to report what has happened to them since they are afraid it may affect their immigration cases.

“If you’re a predator, it’s a gold mine,” said Lisa Fortuna, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center, in a statement to ProPublica. “You have full access and then you have kids that have already had this history of being victimized.”

According to The Arizona Republic, a worker at a non-government shelter was accused of kissing and groping a 14-year-old and was later arrested.

“When a child tells us of inappropriate behavior, we immediately call law enforcement and start an internal investigation as appropriate,” said a spokesperson for Southwest Key, a company that runs multiple shelters.

One employee of Southwest Key was accused of molesting two teenage boys and groping six others over the course of two years. At least two others from the same company in Arizona have been accused of similar crimes in the past three years.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement announced on the website for the US Department of Health and Human Services that there will be visits to different shelters to determine what changes need to be made. A report of their findings is expected by the end of the year.

According to NPR, Michelle Brané, the director of migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, children’s safety is always at risk when they are housed together in large groups in a nonpersonal institution. Brané also explained that since there was a large inflation of children being held in these shelters in a short period of time, there was less time and resources to screen staff and take other precautions.

“Clearly the U.S. government, in this instance, separated children from their parents without any real plan for their long-term care or reunification,” Brané said. “And in doing so, endangered thousands of children.”

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