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Multiple Child Sex Abuse Allegations Reported at Homestead Migrant Facility

The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied ChildrenEXPAND
The Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
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Update, February 27, 2019: Jonathan Hayes, acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, says Rep. Ted Deutch mischaracterized data on allegations of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or inappropriate sexual behavior made by minors at care facilities operated by HHS grantees." See Hayes' full statement below.

Before reopening the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children last year, the U.S. government was aware of at least five prior allegations of child sexual abuse at the facility, according to Department of Health and Human Services documents released Tuesday by Florida Rep. Ted Deutch's office.

Deutch, a Democrat who represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach Counties, made the records public at a House Judiciary Hearing about President Donald Trump's migrant family separation policy. In total, the documents reveal more than 4,500 complaints of child sex abuse were made at migrant facilities from October 2014 to July 2018.

"The details of these sexual abuse allegations are shocking," Deutch said at the hearing. "It was our obligation — the administration’s obligation — to help keep these kids safe."

The Homestead facility first opened in June 2016 during the Obama administration, but was shuttered a year later due to declining numbers of migrant children. The shelter reopened last year under the Trump administration and is expected to nearly double its capacity in 2019. Already, it is the largest camp of its kind in the United States.

The DHS documents show five reports of child sexual abuse at the Homestead facility from August 2016 — just two months after opening — through April 2017, when the shelter closed. Since the facility reopened in February 2018, two more children have reported being sexually assaulted there.

Records also show one allegation of sexual abuse in June 2017 at the Catholic Charities Boystown facility in Cutler Bay. (The data does not include an additional assault reported by a 13-year-old Honduran boy at the facility in July 2018.)

The DHS records do not contain details of the alleged abuse incidents in Homestead and Cutler Bay with one exception. In August 2016, Merice Perez Colon, a 35-year-old youth care worker who showed sexually explicit photos of herself to a child, eventually pleaded guilty to charges in the case and was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

In a statement to Axios, which first broke news of the records, DHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley said child safety is "our top concern."

"These are vulnerable children in difficult circumstances, and ORR [Office of Refugee Resettlement] fully understands its responsibility to ensure that each child is treated with the utmost care," Oakley said. "When any allegations of abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect are made, they are taken seriously and ORR acts swiftly to investigate and respond."

As of Tuesday, 1,600 children were housed at the Homestead shelter, which activists are pushing to close after a successful campaign to shut down a similar camp in Tornillo, Texas. DHS claims none of the minors in Homestead were transferred there from Tornillo. And allegedly none are there because of Trump's family separation policy.

Update, February 27, 2019 - Jonathan Hayes, Acting Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement, Administration for Children and Families, HHS released the following statement to New Times:

“Today, Congressman Deutch mischaracterized data on allegations of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or inappropriate sexual behavior made by minors at care facilities operated by HHS grantees. He even went so far as to level the unfounded assertion that members of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) federal staff were the subjects of sexual abuse allegations. This was totally false. His knowing mischaracterization of the data—and his impugning of the ORR federal staff—was an immoral and indecent insult to all of the career civil servants who are dedicated to ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of the children in the unaccompanied alien children (UAC) program. We request that he apologize to these career civil servants for his untoward and unfounded comments.

“The safety of minors is our top concern when administering the UAC program. Most of our care facilities are licensed by the respective state for child care services, and operate under both state and federal oversight. Because ORR care facilities diligently track all allegations of a wide range of sexually inappropriate conduct, ranging from name calling or use of vulgar language to more serious claims, the data given to Congress by our agency reflects allegations much broader than ‘sexual abuse’ (as defined in 34 U.S.C. § 20341 and in ORR regulations at 45 C.F.R. § 411.6), to also include ‘sexual harassment’ (as defined in ORR regulations at 45 C.F.R. § 411.6) and ‘inappropriate sexual behavior’ (a catch-all category for sexual behaviors that do not rise to the level of sexual abuse or sexual harassment).

“The total number of sexual conduct allegations reported to ORR decreased in FY2017 (1,069 total) but otherwise has generally remained relatively stable each year (FY2015: 1,000 total, FY2016: 1,226 total, FY2018 (through July): 1,261 total). The vast majority of the allegations reported to ORR are ‘inappropriate sexual behaviors’ involving solely UACs, and not staff or any other adults. Facilities can often resolve these allegations by, for example, counseling the minors about more appropriate behaviors.

“More serious allegations rising to the level of ‘sexual abuse’ are reported to both ORR and the Department of Justice (DOJ). Of these, the vast majority involve ‘UAC-on-UAC’ allegations, and the distinct minority involve adults. In FY2015, 279 allegations of sexual abuse were reported. Of these, only 8.6% involves allegations of facility-staff-on-minor sexual abuse. These metrics fluctuated in subsequent years but remained relatively consistent. In FY2016, ORR and DOJ received 348 allegations of sexual abuse, and 16.1% involved facility-staff-on-minor allegations; in FY2017, ORR and DOJ received 264 allegations of sexual abuse, and 18.6% involved facility-staff-on-minor allegations; in FY2018 (through July), ORR and DOJ received 412 allegations of sexual abuse, and 11.9% involved facility-staff-on-minor allegations. Thus, the total number of incidents of alleged ‘sexual abuse’ involving facility-staff-on-minor misconduct across a four year period spanning the previous administration and this administration was 178. None of the allegations involved ORR federal staff. These allegations were all fully investigated and remedial action was taken where appropriate.

“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.”

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