By Michael Grabell and Topher Sanders, ProPublica
Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., called on Wednesday for a federal investigation into what they termed “the alleged widespread and long-term pattern of sexual abuse” in the facilities holding immigrant children.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Inspector General’s Office, the senators said they were particularly concerned that allegations of sexual assault aren’t being properly investigated.
The issue received new attention last week when the House Judiciary Committee released HHS records detailing 4,556 allegations of sexual abuse by children in federally funded immigration facilities from October 2014 to July 2018.
Last summer, ProPublica reported that police nationwide had received hundreds of calls reporting possible sex crimes at shelters that serve immigrant children. An Arizona shelter worker was sentenced to 19 years in prison after being convicted of molesting seven boys over nearly a year.
In December, ProPublica followed up that reporting to show that while many children had reported sexual assaults, records show the police weren’t investigating, often closing the cases within days or even hours.
In one case, a 13-year-old Honduran boy said he told his counselor at Boystown outside Miami that two older teens had tackled him, dragged him into an empty bedroom and tried to take off his clothes. One of them, he said, pinned him facedown and grinded his penis against his butt.
But the shelter waited nearly a month to call the police, taped over surveillance video showing part of the assault and then, according to the police report, told officers “the incident was settled and no sexual crime” had occurred. The Miami-Dade police closed the case without ever interviewing the alleged victim.
The Archdiocese of Miami, which runs Boystown, said it had handled the case properly.
After ProPublica’s questions, the Miami-Dade police reopened the investigation and have not announced their findings.
A week after ProPublica’s story, the Arizona Mirror reported on three child abuse allegations that prompted the federal government to shut down a shelter outside Phoenix. As in the Florida case, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had closed the cases without interviewing the children involved.
“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,” Grassley and Feinstein wrote.
President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which led to the separation of thousands of children from their families at the border last year, has focused attention on the government’s network of more than 100 immigrant children’s facilities across the country. Months after Trump officially ended the policy in June, the system remains near capacity as new policies, including the arrest of undocumented relatives who come forward to claim the children as guardians, have prevented children from being released from the shelters.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement is currently holding about 11,500 children, and the average length of stay has grown from just over 30 days in 2016 to nearly 90 days at the end of last year.
Throughout the summer of 2018, Trump administration officials repeatedly asserted that ORR shelters were safe, even fun, places for kids. But those claims quickly began to crumble as abuse reports surfaced.
After ProPublica’s reporting on sex crimes and other issues in the shelters last summer, as well as stories of abuse by other media outlets, Grassley and Feinstein demanded an investigation. Since then, investigators for the HHS inspector general have visited dozens of facilities to look into child safety at the shelters and whether operators were doing background checks of employees.
The HHS records released last week show that 178 complaints of sexual abuse by shelter staff were reported to federal law enforcement authorities between 2014 and 2018.
A review of the 80 cases reported in 2015 and 2016 shows that 21 staff members were either terminated or resigned following the allegations. Two other cases involved kids who were removed from their foster homes. And in another two, staff members were terminated for other reasons.
However, the HHS documents also show that a significant portion of the allegations were never investigated by child welfare officials and most contained no information about whether they were reported to law enforcement.
The senators asked investigators to gather police reports on all HHS facilities for unaccompanied children, review the agency’s policies and response and make recommendations about “what can be done to stop these assaults.”
Editor’s note: This article was originally published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.