Associated Press/Andres Leighton
- Thousands of migrant children were allegedly sexually abused or harassed while they were in US custody, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) documents released Tuesday.
- The documents show a small spike in allegations during roughly the same period that the Trump administration was detaining thousands of children after it separated them from their parents.
- The Trump administration has since faced criticism for placing separated children in the same shelter system where hundreds of abuse and harassment allegations are made each year.
- HHS said in a statement that the vast majority of the allegations were made against fellow children — not staff members or adults.
- But sexual abuse among children is common in institutional settings, which is why the US shelter system is fundamentally flawed, an early childhood development expert told INSIDER.
Thousands of migrant children were allegedly sexually abused or harassed in the last four years while they were in US government custody, according to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) documents a congressman released on Tuesday.
But beyond the sheer magnitude of the report, the documents also show a small spike in allegations during roughly the same period that the Trump administration was detaining thousands of children who were separated from their parents.
Even worse, according to Rep. Ted Deutch, was the fact that the government knew sexual abuse reports were widespread throughout the shelter system — but it sent thousands of young children into the system anyway during last year’s family separations.
Deutch, a Florida Democrat, interrogated Trump administration officials about the findings during a House Judiciary Committee hearing and first gave the documents to Axios on Tuesday.
Between October 2014 and July 2018, the documents show HHS received 4,556 complaints of sexual abuse or harassment, and the Department of Justice received 1,303 complaints.
The documents also show that 514 sexual misconduct allegations were reported to HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement between April and June of 2018 when President Donald Trump’s "zero tolerance" policy was in full effect. In comparison, 122 allegations were reported in the same period the previous year.
A spike in reported abuse as the Trump administration detained young children separated from their families
A whopping 236 reports were also made in July 2018 alone, as the Trump administration struggled to comply with a federal court order to reunite the children who had been scattered in shelters throughout the country.
"When you carried out the policy, you knew that putting thousands of kids into a situation where they were at risk of sexual abuse was going to be the result," Deutch told the officials during the House hearing. "When you went forward with this policy, did anyone discuss this? Was this a hesitation? Given that you had this history, did anyone worry about what was going to happen to these kids?"
HHS officials rushed to refute Deutch’s insinuation that HHS staff were the ones to blame for the abuse.
In a statement to INSIDER, the acting director for HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement said that in the rare cases that migrant children were allegedly abused by staff members, those staff members were merely contracted by HHS, not employees of HHS.
"[Deutch’s] 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," Jonathan Hayes said.
The office also pointed out that most misconduct allegations were made against other migrant children — not adults.
"The vast majority of the allegations reported to ORR are ‘inappropriate sexual behaviors’ involving solely [children], and not staff or any other adults," Hayes said. "Facilities can often resolve these allegations by, for example, counseling the minors about more appropriate behaviors."
That distinction isn’t necessarily reassuring, according to Kathryn L. Humphreys, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies psychology and early childhood development.
She said sexual abuse at the hands of fellow children is common when children are institutionalized, and when they don’t have the type of close adult supervision that parents typically provide.
Humphreys said the fact that allegations were made against other children doesn’t absolve the government shelter system — it reveals how damaging institutional settings can be to children.
"It wasn’t a huge surprise. In orphanage care in other countries, these kinds of events happen," Humphreys told INSIDER. "Clearly, it’s devastating that the government who’s responsible for the care of these children is unable to keep them safe. Children belong in families, and unfortunately, these kinds of dangers are often more present when children are being cared for outside of family settings."
‘They’re not in good hands if they’re not in family care’
Health and Human Services handout via Reuters
Placing migrant children in the shelter system for extended periods of time isn’t unique to the Trump administration. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children — often adolescents or teenagers — cross the US-Mexico border illegally each year.
Typically when the children are apprehended, they’re placed in shelters while they wait for the government to pair them with "sponsors," who are usually the children’s parents who already migrated to the US, close relatives, or acquaintances.
The kids can spend anywhere from days to months in shelters while they wait for the government to vet their sponsors and release them.
According to HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, children spend fewer than 57 days in the shelters, on average.
But those stays have increased in recent years. In 2015, the average was 34 days, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Associated Press/Brynn Anderson
For the children who were separated from their families at the border last year, then placed in shelters while bureaucratic hurdles delayed their reunifications, they were essentially hit with a double whammy of trauma, Humphreys said.
Not only did they likely experience trauma from being separated from their parents and placed in a shelter system, she said, they would have suffered from the lack of a reliable caregiver to help them navigate their emotions.
"We’re adding stress to their lives and we’re taking away the comforting support we have from their caregiver," Humphreys said. "It’s a common misconception that all kids need are their survival needs being met. That all they need is to make sure that they’re fed, that they’re clothed, that they have shelter to keep them safe in storms. Of course kids need all of these things — but that is far from sufficient for providing the care that young kids, in particular, need."
Humphreys said children need constant, responsive, and sensitive care that is only possible in family settings, not in shelters.
"Even the most well-meaning caregivers in institutional care are rotating — they go home," she said. "They’re not in good hands if they’re not in family care."
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