Last week, the U.S. government released records showing thousands of reports of sexual abuse of migrant children in U.S. shelters over the last four years. While illegal immigration remains one of the hottest topics in Washington, D.C., and a key priority for President Donald Trump, the data raise real concerns about the safety of children in U.S. custody.
The Justice Department report, released by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutsch, D-Fla., tracked claims from 2014 through 2018. The number of allegations remained mostly consistent (about 1,200 per year), except for a dip in 2017 and an increase 2018.
Jonathan H. Hayes, acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said in a statement that the “allegations were all fully investigated and remedial action was taken where appropriate.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Catherine Oakley told Axios that all shelter staff undergo background checks and all shelters must be state-licensed.
The abuse allegations varied: Some claimed shelter staff members had inappropriate relationships with minors or showed them pornographic videos. Others described physical abuse, sometimes the same staff member abusing the same child multiple times. Out of about 4,500 complaints, only 178 accused adult staff. The vast majority described one minor in the shelter abusing another.
The federal government typically contracts with privately run shelters to care for unaccompanied minor immigrants. Most of the children in custody are caught crossing the border alone and held until they can return to a parent or relative. In other cases, parents who attempt to cross illegally with children are detained and prosecuted, and the children are reclassified as unaccompanied minors and placed in a shelter.
Matthew Soerens, co-author of the book Welcoming the Stranger and Seeking Refuge, works with churches on immigration issues through World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization. He said the influx of detainees last summer, when President Donald Trump briefly instituted a zero tolerance policy for illegal border crossings, likely led shelters to hire more staff. The background-check process, Soerens said, could have slipped through the cracks, and more children per shelter means less attention per child. He added that Congress must investigate whether the facilities did everything possible to minimize the potential for abuse.
But Soerens also pointed out that such shelters will always carry some risk of abuse. “That’s one good reason to minimize the use of those facilities, if there are alternatives,” he told me. He mentioned programs that connect migrant families with a case manager who checks in and reminds them to come to court on the appropriate date.
Dan Cadman, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, noted that the majority of cases involved detainees abusing each other and recommended better risk assessment of detainees and keeping higher-risk and older children separate from younger ones. He told me the number of allegations was “disturbingly high” but observed that minors might file false claims to try to be released from the shelters early.
Soerens balanced that reality with another: Children can be less likely to report abuse due to intimidation. He suggested the numbers are probably smaller than the reality.
“The role of the government should be to prevent something like this from happening,” said Soerens, adding that the more children are held in large facilities, the more something like this can happen. But he stressed that that issue should be one of bipartisan agreement instead of approaching this report as Republicans or Democrats. “As American citizens, we should hold our government responsible to do everything possible to protect children,” Soerens said.