Police Are Enabling Rampant Abuse in Immigrant Children’s Shelters
A World Cup soccer match was playing on the shelter’s TV when the two older teenagers tackled Alex on July 1 and dragged him into the empty bedroom. Wrestling him onto his stomach, one of them, a tattoo on his forearm, got on top. As Alex struggled to move, he said he could feel the teen’s penis grinding against his butt.
“Take off his shorts!” he heard the other teen, who’d bragged he’d been a gang member in Honduras, shout. “Let’s get him naked!”
Just 10 days earlier, Alex, 13, had been caught by the Border Patrol after traveling from Honduras with his 17-year-old sister and 5-year-old stepbrother, to flee the country’s gang violence. Now, they were being held at Boystown outside Miami, one of more than 100 youth shelters in the government’s sprawling system meant to provide a temporary haven for migrant children caught crossing the border.
The two teens had been taunting Alex since he’d arrived at the shelter, making crude sexual jokes about his pregnant sister. Now, in the bedroom, Alex said, they yanked down the front of his shorts.
“At least your sister has already tasted a man,” he heard one of them sneer. “But you haven’t even tried a woman.”
Alex said he fought as hard as he could, somehow managing to pull up his shorts and kick until he broke free. As he lay on the floor catching his breath, he said, the boys fled, warning him to keep his mouth shut.
Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters, which have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014. The reports, obtained through public records requests, revealed a largely hidden side of the shelters — one in which both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.
Several of the incidents have led to arrests of shelter employees or teenage residents. And in one particularly heinous case, a youth care worker was convicted in September of molesting seven boys over nearly a year at an Arizona shelter. The employee had worked for months without a full background check.
Coverage of such incidents by ProPublica and other media triggered demands for investigations.
Arizona’s governor ordered a statewide inspection of the shelters, leading to the shutdown of two centers run by Southwest Key after the nonprofit failed to provide proof that its employees had completed background checks.
And late last month, federal investigators warned that the Trump administration had waived FBI fingerprint background checks of staffers and had allowed “dangerously” few mental health counselors at a tent camp housing 2,800 migrant children in Tornillo, Texas.
But ProPublica’s review of the hundreds of police reports showed something else about the assaults. Something that went beyond background checks. Kids at shelters across the country were, indeed, reporting sexual attacks in the shelters, often by other kids. But again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly — and with little investigation — closing the cases, often within days, or even hours.
And there are likely even more such cases. ProPublica’s cache of records is missing many police reports from shelters in Texas, where the largest number of immigrant children are held, because state laws there ban child abuse reports from being made public, particularly when the assaults are committed by other minors.
Now, as the immigration system struggles to house and care for 14,600 children — more than ever before — an examination of how federal and state authorities investigated the assault against Alex, one of those children, reveals startling lapses.
For a few days, Alex said, he didn’t report his assault, heeding his attackers’ warning, worried that speaking up would delay his release from Boystown. But as they continued to harass him, he decided to tell his counselor.
The counselor told him that a surveillance tape had captured the teenagers dragging him by his hands and feet into a room, and that there might have been a witness.
But Alex’s report did not trigger a child sexual assault investigation, including a specialized interview designed to help children talk about what happened, as child abuse experts recommend.
Instead, the shelter waited nearly a month to call the police. When it finally did, a police report shows, the shelter’s lead mental health counselor told the officers “the incident was settled, and no sexual crime occurred between the boys like first was thought among the staff.”
And instead of investigating the incident themselves, officers with the Miami-Dade Police Department took the counselor’s word for it and quickly closed the case, never interviewing Alex.
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, which received $6 million last year to care for about 80 children at Boystown, said it handled Alex’s case correctly, blaming him for any delays. In response to questions, a Miami-Dade police spokesman said the department was reopening the case.
An examination of Alex’s case shows that almost every agency charged with helping Alex — with finding out the full extent of what happened in that room — had instead failed him.
The police closed Alex’s case 72 minutes after responding to the call.
Alex’s mother, Yojana, had just gotten off work on July 27, bone-tired after another hot day installing swimming pools in southwest Missouri, when the call came from Boystown. She’d been expecting her regular chat with her children, so when her cellphone showed a Florida number, she answered excitedly.
Yojana had left them behind in Honduras four years earlier to seek a better life in the United States. Now after a month in the shelter, they’d soon be reunited.
But instead of her children, she heard the unfamiliar voice of a shelter staff member. Something had happened to Alex.
There was surveillance video, the woman said, showing two older teenagers grabbing Alex, throwing him to the floor and dragging him into a bedroom.
“But there are no cameras in the room,” she said, “so we couldn’t see the rest.”
The woman passed the phone to Alex, who sobbed as he told his mother what happened in the bedroom.
When she hung up, Yojana was furious. The attack had happened more than three weeks ago. Why was she only finding out about it now? Where was the staff? Why wasn’t anyone watching them? And what if the attack had been worse than Alex said?
As a mother, Yojana said her instincts were to go to the police — to break down any door she had to — to make sure the shelter and the teens were held accountable. But she knew that in the United States, she wasn’t just any mother. She and her husband, Jairo, had separately crossed the border illegally several years earlier and had been living in the country without permission ever since. The family agreed to let us tell their story as long as we didn’t use their last names.
Yojana had reason to worry. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been arresting parents and family members, or members of their households, who are in the country illegally when they come forward to claim their children. This month, ICE said it had arrested 170 such sponsors, or people connected to them, between July and November; 109 of those people had no criminal record.
If Yojana and Jairo went to the authorities, or pressed too hard, they could risk everything they’d worked for.
Weeks earlier, Alex had started on a path he thought would lead to help. Four days after the attack, he finally got up the courage to report it to his counselor. “She told me it was very sad what happened to me and that she was very sorry,” Alex recalled. His counselor took him to the office of her supervisor, Marianne Cortes, where he repeated his story.
Then, he said, Cortes told him that she and his counselor would watch the surveillance video and “if it’s like you told me, we’ll put in a report.” After they watched the video, Alex said, his counselor told him that there was something else on the tape, something he hadn’t realized during the attack. There’d been a witness.
“In the video, my counselor told me there was another boy in a window,” he said.
But then, after those revelations, nothing happened. There was no further investigation.
In an interview, archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said at that time there was no reason for one. Alex “was interviewed by staff, and he claimed it was verbal harassment, sexual gestures and teasing about his sister, but no nudity,” she said.
The staff had reviewed the surveillance footage, she said: “They did grab him by his hands and feet and take him in the room.” But, she said, it was “humiliating,” not criminal.
Waiting three weeks to call Yojana was “an oversight,” Ross Agosta said, which Cortes noticed when she prepared to call Yojana to begin the reunification process.
It wasn’t until July 30, she said, that Alex told staff that something sexual had happened. But Alex said by that time, Cortes knew the full story. He’d told her when he first reported it in early July and she heard it again as she stood by while he told his mom on July 27.
On July 30, Ross Agosta said, the shelter called the Miami-Dade police and the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Child abuse experts say waiting in such a situation goes against best practices. Regardless of what Alex revealed the first time, they said, counselors who work with children should know that it’s common for assault victims to withhold details initially.
“Sometimes it can be overwhelming,” said Chris Newlin, the lead author of a U.S. Justice Department report on best practices for interviewing children in abuse cases. Young victims may be unsure of what to do, what will happen if they tell or how the system works, he said. They may have been threatened or they may be traumatized.
Newlin said a child in Alex’s situation would be even less likely to report because of his immigration status. That’s why it’s critical, he said, for staff members to take every case seriously and look for signs of trauma.
Ross Agosta said the police came to the shelter on July 30 followed the next day by DCF investigators. And both agencies, she said, determined there “was no sexual assault.”
After the call from Alex, Yojana and Jairo dropped everything and started driving across the country to Boystown. It was supposed to be a happy time, but now they were filled with worry.
Yojana, 33, had come to the United States from Honduras in 2014, leaving behind Alex, then 9, and his sister, Yemerly, 13. She joined a sister in southwest Missouri and found work at a chicken plant, packing frozen pieces on the graveyard shift.
She kept up with her kids through video chats and posted pictures on Facebook of Alex’s face painted like a clown at a birthday party she missed.
The money she sent to Honduras allowed Alex and Yemerly to attend private school, a rare privilege she hoped would insulate them from the country’s gang violence. Yojana hadn’t made it past the sixth grade, but Yemerly was studying to be a civil engineer.
But that display of economic success made them vulnerable to kidnappers, she and Jairo said. One night, after not hearing from Yemerly for several days, Yojana saw a TV news report about five young girls being kidnapped and decided it was time.
“If we didn’t send for them to come, we might regret it for life,” Jairo said.
Alex, Yemerly and their stepbrother Amahury set off from Honduras in June with their 8-year-old cousin. They traveled in a packed refrigerated trailer through Mexico and, 11 days later, crossed the Rio Grande in a green inflatable raft. They were quickly caught by the Border Patrol and taken to Catholic Charities’ Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children’s Village — a facility most people call Boystown.
Five weeks later, on the day they were finally reunited in the Boystown cafeteria, photos show Yojana didn’t even stop to put her handbag down before hugging her children tightly to her. Alex was now taller than her with a new haircut, a thick wave of black hair on top with the sides shaved to a point in the back like the soccer stars he worshipped. Yemerly cried in her mother’s arms.
“Right there, in that moment,” Yojana said later, “it felt like the children that I left in Honduras had come back to life.”
But, she said, she could feel a part of Alex was closed off. The kids wouldn’t be released for two days, so when Alex called her at the hotel, Yojana decided to press for more details about the attack and record it on her phone.
During the call, Alex told her the police were coming and he’d been told they “are going to interview me.” But he was scared that anything he said could interfere with his getting out. “I just don’t want to be here anymore.”
Yojana urged him to tell the truth. “When the police arrive, you tell them the exact same thing you told me,” Yojana said. “Don’t be afraid of what those kids did. You must tell them what happened.”
Yojana could hear the staticky sound of a walkie-talkie in the background.
“Hold on,” Alex said, “the counselor is coming for me.”
What happened next is disputed. Alex said after he hung up he was never interviewed by police or anyone else.
The Miami-Dade police initially told ProPublica it couldn’t find any reports about an alleged sexual assault at Boystown despite being provided with Alex’s full name, the shelter’s address, the date and a description of the incident.
After culling through a log of 145 calls the police had received from the shelter since 2013, we found it under the vague label “Conduct Investigation.”
According to the report, Miami-Dade police officers arrived at Boystown at 4:42 p.m. on July 30 and completed their investigation at 5:54 p.m. The report doesn’t describe what they did for that 72 minutes. The narrative is three sentences long.
Cortes, it said, had called the police “to advise that on the listed date and approximate time” Alex had “an incident” with two other boys. But she “advised the incident was settled and no sexual crime occurred between the boys like first was thought among the staff.”
That was essentially it. The police left. There was nothing about a surveillance video. They didn’t interview the teenagers or the potential witness. They didn’t talk to Alex. There was no mention of how Boystown had come to its conclusion — or why the police believed it.
Under “Case Status,” an officer had typed “CLOSED.”
In a brief phone call, Cortes said she couldn’t discuss how she and others in the shelter responded because of privacy rules and referred questions to the archdiocese.
“The only thing I could tell you is that we advocated the most for him and his care,” Cortes said. “Anything that happens with any child there that might be a trauma, we take it for face value. We don’t minimize it. We take everything very serious.”
Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, a Miami-Dade police spokesman, said he didn’t know if the officer who responded had been told there was video. But he didn’t want to second-guess his judgment in not interviewing Alex.
Shelter staff members, Zabaleta said, are trained to work with immigrant children and the issues they face. So when “you’re dealing with kids and you have their counselor,” he said, “they become their voice, and they’re there to look out for the best interest of the child.”
But the officer’s decision not to interview Alex struck child abuse experts we spoke with as unusual.
“How can you possibly conduct an investigation without getting input from the one person who you think can be your most credible witness about what may or may not have happened?” Newlin said. “How do you know who to talk to? How do you know what evidence to possibly look for if you don’t obtain a statement from that individual?”
Mike Haney, who formerly oversaw abuse prevention and intervention at DCF and the Florida Department of Health, said the state developed its model for abuse investigations in 1978 when it created “child protection teams” made up of pediatricians, social workers and child psychologists. The teams work with local law enforcement agencies and DCF to assess child abuse reports, provide services and conduct what are known as “forensic interviews.”
Haney said such interviews should occur “as soon as it’s reasonably appropriate for the child,” but generally within 24 to 48 hours. That’s because children come under a lot of pressure when a report is made to law enforcement and DCF, he said.
“For an officer to respond to that type of allegation and not interview the kid, I’m not sure what the officer was thinking,” Haney said. “And if the clinician said, ‘I talked with the kids, they said this,’ I’d want to know that the child gave me the same story.”
Still, under Florida law, Haney said, the officer was under no obligation to call in a child protection team to conduct a forensic interview. That’s because the law only requires such interviews when the child alleges abuse by a parent or caregiver. And what Alex says happened to him is what’s known in Florida as a “child on child.”
“In my opinion, we should be referring any child if there’s an allegation of sexual abuse for a professional assessment,” Haney said. “But that becomes a resource issue, a funding issue, a staff issue. That’s the biggest reason. There would be a significant cost increase if we make it available to any child.”
The hundreds of police reports reviewed by ProPublica revealed many hastily dismissed incidents like Alex’s in immigrant youth shelters.
In 2016, a staff member at a shelter outside Phoenix observed one boy making hip-thrusting movements on top of another boy with a blanket in between them. The victim couldn’t stop crying and wouldn’t speak to the staff member. A police officer took a report and the case was closed.
A year earlier at the same facility, a youth care worker walked in on a boy who had his shorts partially down and was standing behind another boy who also had his pants down and was bending over a bed. The next day, during a medical exam, the boy told a nurse that one of his roommates had held him down while the other raped him. Five days later, however, when he was finally brought in for an official interview, the boy denied that anything had happened. That case, too, was closed.
In March 2017, a 16-year-old Honduran boy told a shelter employee in New York that his roommate had raped him while he’d been at a shelter in Renton, Washington. After nearly two months of back-and-forth, a detective finally interviewed the teen. But by that time, the boy no longer wanted “to do anything about it.” Like the others, the case was closed.
In many cases, the responding officers simply filed brief information reports about the incidents, without investigating them as potential crimes.
Critics say this highlights a flaw of the system. Because immigrant kids are typically only in the investigating agencies’ jurisdictions for a few weeks, even if a detective wanted to pursue a case, it wouldn’t necessarily be easy. Kids get moved around a lot in the shelter system, sometimes without warning or in the middle of the night. When they’re released, they’re often sent out of state to live with parents or relatives who might want to avoid interactions with police because they’re undocumented themselves or living with someone who is.
When Boystown finally released Alex and his siblings on Aug. 1, they handed Yojana a folder. It contained Alex’s intake papers, vaccination records and blood tests. There was information for Yojana about how to be a good sponsor and how to follow up with immigration court. But there wasn’t anything, not even an incident report, about what happened to Alex.
When Jairo asked to see the surveillance video, a staff member informed him that the security cameras were on a loop.
“They said that after 30 days, the video is erased, and much to our regret, today is the 31st day,” Jairo said. “How convenient.”
But in that moment, he and Yojana didn’t want to press. They had their children again. And for the first time in their lives, they could step outside and into America together.
After leaving Boystown, the family huddled at a nearby Honduran restaurant to decide if they should go to the police or if they should just get home.
They’d only been given a few days off work, and Jairo felt pressure to get back. On the other hand, somebody should pay for what happened to Alex, if not for his sake, to prevent other children from being harmed in the shelter.
Then again, the shelter said it filed a police report. Even if Alex hadn’t been interviewed yet, surely an officer would follow up.
“I wanted to grab my phone and break it because I couldn’t stand it anymore — the pressure,” Jairo said. “I have so many responsibilities on my shoulders and this was another on top of that. Plus, we already had our children, and that was good.”
They decided to leave.
Back in Missouri a few days later, Alex squeezed into the backseat of Jairo’s pickup, tagging along on a swimming pool job.
As they drove east on Interstate 44, passing the exit-ramp oases of Waffle Houses, Best Westerns and Flying J truck stops, Alex stared out the window silently, occasionally resting his head on the window or running his fingers nervously along the seams of his jeans.
For days, Yojana and Jairo had been wavering between wanting to seek justice but feeling powerless over how to go about it. Jairo said he had a business card for a lawyer in Kansas City who could take Alex’s case and maybe get to the bottom of what happened. But Jairo and Yojana hadn’t called for an appointment.
There was a lot they were trying to sort out. They weren’t sure if Alex was telling the whole story of what happened at Boystown or keeping something even worse from them. Yojana said she’d tried to broach the subject, but Alex told her not to ask him about it anymore.
Alex said that on the day the police came, he and his counselor “were waiting for the police to talk to me, but Marianne Cortes spoke with them, and then my counselor told me they didn’t need to interview me anymore.”
Alex said he was left confused. He’d wanted to tell the police what the two boys did to him and didn’t understand why the shelter had talked to the police on his behalf.
When asked what he wanted to happen, Alex was unequivocal. “I want to report them,” he said. “To go to the police.”
In mid-August, DCF released a report citing Boystown for three violations of the state’s rules regarding residential child care facilities.
The report said the shelter had been understaffed. It had failed to report suspected child abuse in a timely fashion. And it had failed to notify a child’s parents or legal guardian after a critical incident.
The records didn’t mention Alex or describe what prompted the investigation. But they show that on Aug. 16 — a little over two weeks after Alex was released — Boystown agreed to a “corrective action plan.” It promised to retrain employees and file biweekly reports that would allow the state to check that Boystown had enough staff to supervise the kids.
DCF spokesman David Frady said he couldn’t speak about Alex’s case or even confirm that there’d been an incident at Boystown because of privacy concerns.
“I’m not able to confirm or deny whether or not we’ve spoken to an alleged victim,” he said.
Miami-Dade police denied a request to interview the responding officers and refused to release body-camera footage of their visit to Boystown. Of the 17 minutes of video and audio that exists, the department said only 12 seconds was public because Florida law prohibits release of any body-cam recording taken within a “private residence.”
ProPublica challenged the decision, but the department said the conversation occurred in an office, a place where the social worker could expect privacy.
However, after receiving our questions about the handling of the case and reviewing the incident, Zabaleta said, the department had assigned an investigator to take a second look — effectively reopening the case.
The department then said it wouldn’t even release the 12 seconds of footage because the case was still under investigation.
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which funds and regulates the shelters, said that after the incident, Boystown transferred the “perpetrators” to a different dorm. But the agency declined to answer questions about whether Boystown had handled the incident properly or what, if anything, ORR had done in response.
“Our focus is always on the safety and best interest of each child,” spokeswoman Lydia Holt said in an email. “We have no additional information to share regarding this case.”
Today, Alex’s case remains in the hands of the state attorney’s office. But child abuse experts say the likelihood of learning the truth of what happened to him in the bedroom at Boystown grows dimmer every day.
This much is clear: If Alex’s case is any guide, the thousands of children passing through the nation’s overburdened shelter system — understaffed and increasingly akin to long-term orphanages — should not expect a rigorous investigation if they suffer abuses in the shelters.
“Somebody has to pay for these mistakes because these are monstrous things,” Jairo said. “It can’t go unpunished. If it stays that way, in many centers, this is going to continue to happen.”
Prior to the publication of this story, and without the knowledge of ProPublica, Silvina Sterin Pensel, a freelance reporter, started a GoFundMe page to help a relative of Jairo get back to Missouri after her son was released from a New York shelter. The fundraising effort was launched after ProPublica and Sterin Pensel had secured the cooperation of Jairo and his family for this story and had no bearing on the reporting.Your support matters…
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