LOS FRESNOS, Texas (AP) - The round-cheeked 17-year-old boy with wide chocolate eyes hadn’t felt like a child for some time. He’d spent months trying to reach the U.S., clinging to the tops of steel trains, holed up with kidnappers, shivering in a chilly Border Patrol holding tank.
So, when the boy landed one winter day at a shelter for immigrant children caught in the U.S. illegally and alone, it seemed more like summer camp than a detention center.
In that oasis along a rural slab of Texas borderland, children chased soccer balls in the sun. The food was warm. The staff smiled.
He told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1tQUmOE) that one staff member, a burly night-shift worker, even brought him little gifts: woven bracelets and batteries for his MP3 player, a reward for good behavior.
The Honduran teen didn’t think anything of it - until the night-shift worker crept up to his bunk bed late one night after the dorm lights were out.
Record-breaking numbers of children and teens the Honduran immigrant caught in the U.S. illegally without a parent or guardian are being swept into a strained and secretive federal detention network.
Some 60,000 are expected this year - up from about 6,560 in 2011, according to government estimates.
The unaccompanied children are housed in a labyrinthine network of more than 90 state-licensed shelters, foster homes and detention centers that the government describes as “safe havens.” Most children are well cared for.
But a Houston Chronicle investigation found that youths inside the insular system have quietly suffered abuses by the people paid to protect them.
The system has repeatedly failed to hold abusers accountable, despite a federal law that makes sexual contact with a detainee a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the investigation found.
The full extent of sexual and physical abuse in the federal shelters is unknown. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency responsible for the children’s care, has no specific system that tracks abuse allegations all the way through the investigative process - from outcry to outcome.
But for the first time, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Chronicle, the government has released copies of 101 “significant incident reports” from March 2011 to March 2013 involving abuse allegations against staff members. The Chronicle reviewed thousands of pages of records from federal, state and law enforcement agencies in five states and interviewed officials, former shelter staff and residents.
Among the Chronicle’s findings:
- Children and teenagers reported having sexual contact - ranging from kissing to unwanted touching to intercourse - with staff in Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois, the federal records show.
- The Office of Refugee Resettlement relies on state childcare licensing and local police to investigate abuses of the children in its care, instead of notifying the FBI of serious allegations. In the hands of local police and prosecutors, criminal cases have crumbled because of sloppy detective work, communication gaps with federal officials and jurisdictional confusion.