A deep-dive review of police records by ProPublica published Friday found that kids detained at immigrant children’s shelters nationwide are reporting sexual assaults committed by employees or other kids. However, the review of hundreds of police reports also showed law enforcement quickly closed reports of abuse with little investigation, often within days or hours of them being opened.
The reports, gathered over the past six months, may just be the tip of the iceberg, ProPublica’s reporters write:
And there are likely even more such cases. ProPublica’s cache of records is missing many police reports from shelters in Texas, where the largest number of immigrant children are held, because state laws there ban child abuse reports from being made public, particularly when the assaults are committed by other minors.
In the piece, ProPublica shares the story of Alex, a 13-year-old from Honduras who came to the U.S. with his two siblings, escaping gang violence with the intention of being reunited with their mother, who had immigrated to Florida years earlier. Alex, who had been detained by Border Patrol in May and placed at Catholic Charities’ Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village, told ProPublica he reported to the shelter’s staff he was assaulted by two older teenagers in July. Security cameras even caught the two teenagers dragging Alex into a bedroom by his hands and feet. However, this is what happened once Alex reported the assault, according to the site:
The counselor told him that a surveillance tape had captured the teenagers dragging him by his hands and feet into a room, and that there might have been a witness.
But Alex’s report did not trigger a child sexual assault investigation, including a specialized interview designed to help children talk about what happened, as child abuse experts recommend.
Instead, the shelter waited nearly a month to call the police. When it finally did, a police report shows, the shelter’s lead mental health counselor told the officers “the incident was settled, and no sexual crime occurred between the boys like first was thought among the staff.”
And instead of investigating the incident themselves, officers with the Miami-Dade Police Department took the counselor’s word for it and quickly closed the case, never interviewing Alex.
Instead of having his case investigated by police, this is how ProPublica reports his case was handled:
Alex said that on the day the police came, he and his counselor “were waiting for the police to talk to me, but [facility supervisor] Marianne Cortes spoke with them, and then my counselor told me they didn’t need to interview me anymore.”
Alex said he was left confused. He’d wanted to tell the police what the two boys did to him and didn’t understand why the shelter had talked to the police on his behalf.
When asked what he wanted to happen, Alex was unequivocal. “I want to report them,” he said. “To go to the police.”
Alex is reportedly far from the only child detained in these shelters whose police report was “hastily dismissed.” The publication also found a case where a staff member witnessed one boy “making hip-thrusting movements on top of another boy with a blanket in between them,” but the boy couldn’t stop crying and refused to speak to another staffer, so police took a report and closed the case. In another, a youth care worker walked in on a boy bent down in front of another, both of whom had their pants down. During a medical exam, the first boy told a nurse that the other boy raped him, but denied anything happened during an official interview days later. In a third case, in which a detective finally spoke with a boy who reported being raped two months earlier, he no longer wanted “to do anything about it.” All three cases were closed. As the publication reported:
In many cases, the responding officers simply filed brief information reports about the incidents, without investigating them as potential crimes.
Critics say this highlights a flaw of the system. Because immigrant kids are typically only in the investigating agencies’ jurisdictions for a few weeks, even if a detective wanted to pursue a case, it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. Kids get moved around a lot in the shelter system, sometimes without warning or in the middle of the night. When they’re released, they’re often sent out of state to live with parents or relatives who might want to avoid interactions with police because they’re undocumented themselves or living with someone who is.
A month and a half after Alex’s assault, the Florida Department of Children and Families released a report that Alex’s shelter, known as Boystown, violated three of the state’s rules on residential child care facilities. Violations included a failure to “report suspected child abuse in a timely fashion” as well as failure to “notify a child’s parents or legal guardian after a critical incident,” ProPublica reported.