Report: 6-year-old separated from her mother was sexually abused in government custody

The agency disputes the account. But reporting shows the challenges of caring for children in government custody.

A 6-year-old migrant girl, separated from her family, was sexually abused while in government custody at a facility in Arizona, according to a report in the Nation.

The girl, identified as D.L. in documents obtained by the Nation, was separated from her mother at the border on May 26. She and her mother had fled Guatemala and were split up as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy, which sought to prosecute all adults crossing the border illegally, even those seeking asylum.

The girl was sent to a shelter outside Phoenix, run by Southwest Key Programs, which is the largest operator of immigration shelters contracted by the US government, where she was reportedly sexually abused by another child being housed at the residence, according to immigration rights advocates. Staff members contacted the girl’s father — an undocumented immigrant in California — to let him know about the incident, and assured him the abuse would not happen again. According to the Nation:

D.L. was reported to have been sexually abused on June 4, 2018. On June 12, one day after D.L.’s father was contacted, the 6-year-old girl was presented with the form stating that, as part of the facility’s intervention protocol, she had been instructed to “maintain my distance from the other youth involved” and had been provided “psychoeducation,” described in the document as “reporting abuse” and “good touch bad touch.” The form, posted below, shows D.L’s “signature”—a single letter “D,” next to the characterization of her as “tender age”—which supposedly confirms that D.L understands “that it is my responsibility to follow the safety plan” reviewed with her.

The safety plan, however, allegedly did not prevent the same child from hitting and fondling D.L. again, an incident her father was informed of on June 22, according to a family spokesperson.

A spokesperson for Southwest Key, in a statement to Vox, disputes The Nation’s report and said it “knowingly mis-characterized what happened.”

According to the spokesperson, the form is a standard (“PREA”) incident report that must be filled out whenever there is any incident that could be “characterized as inappropriate sexual behavior.” That can be wide-ranging, and one of the examples the spokesperson provided was if a child opens a bathroom door on another child.

In this case, according to Southwest Key, an older child said a 5-year-old boy had touched her and D.L., the alleged 6-year-old victim. The boy, who “routinely sexually acted out” was put in 24-hour supervision.

D.L., according to the spokesperson, when staff talked with D.L., the girl said that the boy didn’t touch her and it was not sexual abuse, which was supported by “video review.”

An addendum was added to the original report, and both the original and amended PREA report were sent to appropriate government agencies, Arizona’s Department of Children’s Services, and trigged an internal review.

D.L. has since been reunited with her family. “I hugged her, I was crying. She didn’t recognize me,” D.L.’s mother told the Nation, about her reunion with her daughter. “She told me that she thought I was never going to be with her again and that she was going to have to live with another lady. She behaved like she was still in detention. She wouldn’t touch me, hug me or kiss me.”

Southwest Key’s account differs from that of the family, but the story exposes the challenges of caring for children, especially young kids, in government custody.

The Trump administration put a halt to separating all families at the border in June under public pressure, and more than 1,400 children were reunited with their families by a court-order July 26 deadline. But more than 700 children remain in government custody, including hundreds whose parents have already been deported back to their home countries.

An investigation by ProPublica reveal troubling instances of abuse at facilities contracted to care for migrant children. ProPublica obtained police reports and call logs from 70 of the 100 immigrant youth shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for both unaccompanied minors — children who arrive at the border without a parent or guardian — and the children who were separated from their families under Trump’s policy.

ProPublica found that in the last five years — dating back to the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014 during the Obama administration — police have responded to at least 125 calls reporting sex offenses at shelters housing mostly immigrant youth.

These risks always existed for immigrant youth in shelters. But Trump’s policies don’t help the situation.

It’s not clear if any of the police reports analyzed by ProPublica specifically relate to separated children, and many predate Trump’s family separation policy. But the reports raise pressing concerns about the well-being of migrant children in the government’s care, especially as some have already faced the traumas of abuse in their home countries, or of being split from their parents.

Experts told ProPublica that the chaotic implementation of the Trump administration’s family separation plan also may have strained the resources and staff capacity of some of these facilities. That can make it more likely that cases of abuse and other misconduct may slip past notice or leave shelters struggling to deal with vulnerable kids — especially immigrant children, who may be nervous to report abuse because of worries about how it might affect their immigration status.

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

Update: The post has been updated with a statement from Southwest Key Programs.