Children on the Borderline

  • 06/28/2018
  • Terelle Jerricks

This is what happens when children become bargaining chips

Compiled by Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor

On June 21, a day after President Donald Trump retreated from his administration’s zero tolerance stance against migrants crossing the southern border by executive order, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and a bipartisan group of mayors called for the reunification of families separated after crossing illegally into the United States.

The mayors sought these assurances when it became clear that the Trump administration didn’t have a plan for the 2,300 children already separated from their parents.

This Trump-manufactured crisis was created early this past spring when the administration began prosecuting every person attempting to enter the country illegally. Since children can’t be detained in a federal prison, they were taken away from their parents while those adults were waiting for their day in court.

Trump has repeatedly denied responsibility for this practice, attempting to place blame on the Democrats in Congress while demanding they pass immigration legislation that includes, among other things, money to build a $25 billion wall along the southern U.S. border wall — the wall Trump has promised would be paid for by Mexico.

It’s a line of reasoning that many observers consider about as botched as the zero-tolerance policy, which began making his mess by disregarding an important legal distinction between the people who arrive at the border hoping to cross. Trump is treating all of them as criminals, charging them with attempting to enter the U.S. illegally. But many of the immigrants —most of the those accompanied by children — are fleeing danger in their home countries, seeking safety by requesting asylum in the U.S. This is not a crime; it’s a right guaranteed under both U.S. and international law and governed by a policy that has been in place for decades. Trump’s reaction to this embarrassing inconvenience? He just called for eliminating the court process altogether, replacing it with a “simpler system” — no courts, no judges.

“Children aren’t poker chips,” Garcetti said during a press conference outside of a detention center in Tornillo, Texas. “They are people and we demand that Washington fix the mess that it’s created….

“Those cries that we heard a couple of days ago probably happened again last night behind us, and they will happen again tonight and every night until these children are reunified with their parents.”

Indeed, the visuals running on repeat day after day of children taken from their parents and reports of how these separations are used as bargaining chips has become more than a nightmare out of the Trumpian imagination.

The picture that has been trickling out since spring, via Reveal News, a publication operated by the The Center for Investigative Reporting, is one where migrant children from adolescence to teenagers are placed in shelters run by private companies accused of serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse. According to Reveal News, taxpayers have paid more than $1.5 billion in the past four years to these companies. If these children weren’t dodging some form of physical abuse, they were forced-fed psychotropic drugs that make them dizzy, listless, obese and even incapacitated, according to legal filings that show immigrant children in U.S. custody subdued with powerful psychiatric drugs.

In almost all cases, the federal government has continued to place migrant children with the companies even after serious allegations were raised and after state inspectors cited shelters with serious deficiencies, government and other records show.

Since 2003, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department has awarded almost $5 billion in grants through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, mostly to religious and nonprofit organizations in 18 states, to house children who arrive in the country unaccompanied. The program grew quickly in 2014, when around 70,000 children crossed the southern border alone.

Now this web of private facilities, cobbled together to support children with nowhere else to go, is beginning to hold a new population: the more than 2,000 children who arrived with their parents but were separated from them because of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

In Texas, where the resettlement agency awarded the majority of the grants, state inspectors have cited homes with more than 400 deficiencies, about one-third of them serious.

Allegations included staff members’ failure to seek medical attention for children. One had a burn, another a broken wrist, a third a sexually transmitted disease. In another shelter, staff gave a child medicine to which she was allergic, despite a warning on her medical bracelet. Inspectors also cited homes for “inappropriate contact” between children and staff, including a case in which a staff member gave children a pornographic magazine.

In October, an employee appeared drunk when he showed up to work at a facility operated by Southwest Key Programs in San Benito, Texas. A drug test later found he was over the legal alcohol limit to drive. That was among more 246 violations state inspectors found at Southwest Key’s facilities.

This past year, a youth care worker at a Florida shelter for migrant children was sentenced to 10 years in prison after she admitted to trading sexually explicit photos and text messages with minors at the shelter.  That facility later closed but recently reopened under a more than $30 million contract to house 1,000 children.

If the migrant minors didn’t have these sorts of abuses to worry about, being medicated with psychotropic drugs was another.

Shiloh Treatment Center Lawsuit

More than 700 miles east of Tornillo, Texas, children at Shiloh Treatment Center, federal court filings reveal that a government contractor housing migrant minors, have described children being held down and injected. The lawsuit alleges that children were told they would not be released or see their parents unless they took medication and that they only were receiving “vitamins.”

Parents and the children themselves told attorneys the drugs rendered them unable to walk, afraid of people and wanting to sleep constantly, according to affidavits filed April 23 in California’s Western Division of the U.S. Central District Court, in Los Angeles.

One mother said her child fell repeatedly, hitting her head, and ended up in a wheelchair. A child described trying to open a window and being hurled against a door by a Shiloh supervisor, who then choked her until she fainted.

“The supervisor told me I was going to get a medication injection to calm me down,” the girl said. “Two staff grabbed me, and the doctor gave me the injection despite my objection and left me there on the bed.”

Another child recounted being made to take pills in the morning, noon and night. The child said “the staff told me that some of the pills are vitamins because they think I need to gain weight. The vitamins changed about two times and each time I feel different.”

Shiloh is among 71 companies that receive funds from the federal government to house and supervise immigrant children deemed “unaccompanied minors.” These are the places set up to receive the more than 2,000 children separated from their parents in the past six weeks under the new Trump administration policy as they leave temporary way stations at the border.

An investigation by Reveal,  found that nearly half of the $3.4 billion paid to those companies in the past four years went to homes with serious allegations of mistreating children. In almost all cases reviewed by Reveal, the federal government continued contracts with the companies after serious allegations were raised.

At Reveal’s request, forensic psychiatrist Mark. J. Mills assessed materials from 420 pages of children’s medical records and statements filed in California federal court this April.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist here; it looks like they’re trying to control agitation and aggressive behavior with antipsychotic drugs,” said Mills, who practices in the Washington, D.C. area and was an expert witness for a lawsuit that in 2008 stopped the federal government from forcibly administering antipsychotic drugs to deportees. “You don’t need to administer these kinds of drugs unless someone is plucking out their eyeballs or some such. The facility should not use these drugs to control behavior. That’s not what antipsychotics should be used for. That’s like the old Soviet Union used to do.”

The records were filed in connection with an ongoing class-action status lawsuit alleging poor treatment of immigrant children in U.S. custody. An attorney representing the children said youth separated from their parents often become depressed, angry, anxious and, sometimes, unruly and that, in turn, encourages prescription of inappropriate medication.

Side effects of the medications make some children feel even more desperate, leading to the prescription of increasingly powerful medications, said Carlos Holguin, an attorney for the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law. Holguin is asking a judge to require parents’ permission or a court order before children in the country illegally can be medicated.

One child was prescribed 10 different shots and pills, including the antipsychotic drugs Latuda, Geodon and Olanzapine, the Parkinson’s medication Benztropine, the seizure medications Clonazepam and Divalproex, the nerve pain medication and antidepressant Duloxetine, and the cognition enhancer Guanfacine.

Dosage recommendations at Shiloh gave orderlies what Mills called an unusually wide berth to determine how much medicine to give the children.

Here in Los Angeles

The report stated that almost 100 children separated under the Trump administration’s policy have reached detention centers in the Los Angeles area  and local officials knew little about the children’s whereabouts, the living conditions and what the federal government’s plans were to reunite them with their families.

Two days later, California regulators have vowed to reinspect all of the group homes and foster family agencies charged with housing the children, but focussing first on those that serve the youngest children.

The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement is charged with managing the children separated from migrant parents and are under the age of 9 and reportedly detained in facilities and foster homes run by at least four nonprofit agencies.

According to federal contracting data, three of the agencies have been awarded three-year federal grants that vary from $2.7 million to $22 million to shelter and find foster care for unaccompanied minors.

The Los Angeles Times quoted the Central American Resource Center, a community-based organization founded in the 1980s to protect the rights of Central American immigrants, as saying that California is a better place for these separated children than Texas, Michigan or Georgia. The organization expressed worry that exposing their locations could put the children at further risk.

“People can have the best intentions to help, but it can be very detrimental for the children,” said Camila Alvarez, managing attorney with the Central American Resource Center. “Some of these places are not well-known intentionally.”

Federal tax filings show David & Margaret Youth and Family Services, which runs a shelter for children in La Verne and foster family placement agencies Nuevo Amanecer in Los Angeles and International Christian Adoptions in Temecula, have also worked with unaccompanied minors in the past. All are licensed by the State of California to either care for children or place them with foster families.

David & Margaret Youth and Family Services confirmed in a statement to KPCC/LA that they have unaccompanied minors.

“Like the rest of the country we are troubled by what has occurred at our borders,” CEO Charles Rich said. “We do not set public policy and cannot be distracted from the work we do.  Our focus is to care for youth. We are committed to providing a safe, nurturing, and comforting environment to all the children we serve.”

The spokeswoman for Crittenton Services for Children and Families said emergency shelter space for children removed from their families via the immigration system or child welfare system is hard to find in California. Even before Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy for people “entering the country illegally” went into effect, Jasso said the Fullerton shelter was near capacity.

Mayor Garcetti said he knows about the facilities housing them and is monitoring the situation. In the meantime, he is working to find ways to support the children, through donations and community outreach.

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