More than half of migrant children’s sexual abuse allegations against staff came from shelters run by 3 nonprofits

A security guard checks cars at the entrance to Casa Padre, a former Walmart which is now a center for unaccompanied immigrant children, on June 24, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas.

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A security guard checks cars at the entrance to Casa Padre, a former Walmart which is now a center for unaccompanied immigrant children, on June 24, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas.
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Getty Images/Spencer Platt

  • Data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) show that thousands of migrant children were allegedly sexually abused or harassed in US shelters in the last four years.
  • Of those, at least 178 of the allegations were made against shelter staff.
  • 108 of the alleged assaults occurred at shelters run by three major nonprofits, Axios first reported on Tuesday.
  • Those nonprofits have raked in $2.5 billion in federal government grants since 2014.

Three main nonprofits are responsible for the migrant children’s shelters in which more than half of the sexual abuse allegations against staff members were made over the last four years, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) data first reported by Axios.

The three contractors – Southwest Key, Baptist Child & Family Services, and International Educational Services – collectively run dozens of the shelters that house migrant children who arrive in the United States alone after crossing the border illegally.

Migrant children can spend days to months in the shelters before they are released and placed with sponsors, who are usually the children’s parents or other relatives. According to HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, children spend fewer than 57 days in the shelters, on average.

The three nonprofits that run many of those shelters have raked in $2.5 billion in federal government grants since 2014, according to USAspending.gov data, also reported by Axios.

The abuse allegation data, which Rep. Ted Deutch’s office released last week, showed that HHS received 4,556 complaints of sexual abuse at the shelters between October 2014 and July 2018.

Read more: Sexual abuse and harassment reports in migrant children’s shelters spiked during Trump’s family separations

Southwest Key Combes is a facility run by Southwest Key Programs that houses 'tender age' immigrant children who have been separated from their families at the US-Mexico border. It's shown on June 22, 2018 in Harlingen, TX.

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Southwest Key Combes is a facility run by Southwest Key Programs that houses ‘tender age’ immigrant children who have been separated from their families at the US-Mexico border. It’s shown on June 22, 2018 in Harlingen, TX.
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The Washington Post/Jahi Chikwendiu via Getty Images

Of the 1,303 complaints that were also reported to the Justice Department, the vast majority of the allegations accused fellow migrant children of abuse. But the documents also detailed 178 complaints made against adult staff members at the facilities.

A range of abuse allegations, from name-calling to groping

According to the documents, Southwest Key was the nonprofit listed for the highest proportion of complaints, with 65 allegations occurring at more than 20 facilities run by the contractor. Baptist Child and Family Services was the next-highest nonprofit listed, with 23 complaints recorded, and International Educational Services saw 14 complaints at its facilities.

The complaints run the gamut from groping or harassment allegations, to “being verbally inappropriate,” to instances of hearsay or rumors from other children.

For instance, one child reported that a staff member approached him twice and offered him shoes in exchange for letting him fondle his genitals. The incident was not investigated by Child Protected Services, but the worker was later terminated, according to the documents.

Another complaint alleged that a staff member opened the shower door on at least five different occasions while migrant girls were bathing. The employee was terminated after an investigation, the documents show.

Read more: 18 babies under the age of 1 are currently in ICE detention centers

A playground for detained children is seen through chain link fencing at an immigration detention facility for children run by Southwest Key Programs and the US Department of Health and Human Services in Phoenix, Arizona on June 28, 2018.

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A playground for detained children is seen through chain link fencing at an immigration detention facility for children run by Southwest Key Programs and the US Department of Health and Human Services in Phoenix, Arizona on June 28, 2018.
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Reuters/Leah Millis

In another episode recorded in the documents, a migrant girl reported that a male clinician told her “he was falling in love with her, couldn’t stop thinking about her” during a mental health session. She also reported that the clinician had hugged her and kissed her cheek. The staff member in question remained employed and an investigation was closed.

Southwest Key and Baptist Child and Family Services did not immediately respond to INSIDER’s requests for comment. International Educational Services shut down its shelters for migrant children last year after the government terminated its contracts over suspected financial improprieties, according to The New York Times and Brownsville Herald.

HHS did not immediately respond to INSIDER’s request for comment, but said in a statement last week that the facilities overseen by the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) “diligently track all allegations of a wide range of sexually inappropriate conduct,” therefore the allegations listed under the umbrella term “sexual abuse” include everything from simple name-calling to “more serious claims.”

HHS also said the vast majority of the allegations reported overall were against fellow migrant children. Allegations against staff members made up a small proportion of the 1,303 complaints reported to the Justice Department.

“Our office takes seriously all allegations of abuse and makes every effort to ensure that every minor in the UAC program is in a safe environment and released to a vetted sponsor,” acting ORR director Jonathan Hayes said in a February 26 statement.