PHOENIX, AZ — A 6-year-old girl who was separated from her family under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy was sexually abused twice by an older child at a detention center near Phoenix, according to a new report from The Nation. The magazine also obtained a copy of documents that appear to tell the girl it was her responsibility to stay away from her abuser after the first incident was reported.
Claiming “credible fear” that she and her family would be harmed in gang violence if they returned to Guatemala, the girl’s mother crossed the U.S. border with her daughter at El Paso, Texas, on May 24, according to the report. They were separated two days later, and the girl was sent to Casa Glendale, a shelter outside of Phoenix run by Southwest Key Programs, which operates 26 such facilities under contract with the federal government.
The girl’s father was already living in California without documentation, according to the report.
On June 11, he received a call from Southwest Key saying his daughter and other girls had been fondled by another detained child on June 4. Mark Lane, a spokesman for the family, told The Nation that Southwest Key required the 6-year-old to sign the form acknowledging that it was her responsibility to maintain her distance from the other youth involved. You can see the form on The Nation website.
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Officials from Southwest Key told the father of the child, who is identified as D.L., that changes were being made that would prevent similar abuse from occurring again. But on June 22, Southwest Key again called D.L.’s father and said the same boy had hit and fondled his daughter again.
When the father cited assurances from Southwest Key after the first incident that the abuse wouldn’t be repeated and asked how it had been allowed to happen again, the woman who called him said she wasn’t authorized to say more, Lane told The Nation. He had asked to speak with a social worker after the first report and was promised the opportunity to do so, the report said, but that never happened.
Lane and the family were connected through Families Belong Together, a coalition of civil rights groups that has joined an international outcry over both the family separations and conditions inside the detention centers.
On Friday, a federal judge in Los Angeles said she planned to appoint an independent monitor to evaluate conditions for immigrant children at U.S. border facilities following a spate of reports of spoiled food, insufficient water and frigid conditions. The order by Judge Dolly M. Gee came on the heels of a separate court mandate from San Diego that required the federal government to reunite about 2,000 families separated at the border.
The Trump administration said last week that more than 1,800 children have been reunited with parents and sponsors but hundreds remain apart, signaling a potentially arduous task ahead. The administration said 1,442 children 5 and older had been reunified with their parents in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and 378 others were released “in other appropriate circumstances,” including to other sponsors. Still, more than 700 parents were deemed not eligible or currently not eligible, and many of them have been deported. Of those, 431 children have parents outside the United States.
Southwest Key, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that runs 26 facilities across the United States and will be paid about $458 million by the federal government this year, has been cited for hundreds of violations by state regulators in Texas over the past several years, according to a report by Texas Monthly. Some of the reports were fairly benign, the magazine said, but others are egregious, including one report in 2014 that an employee of a Casa Rio Grande shelter “engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a child.”
The mother of the child at the center of The Nation’s report was still detained in El Paso when she learned about the alleged abuse. She said through a translator that she “felt really horrible” because she couldn’t do anything to help her child because she was detained more than 400 miles away.
“It was a nightmare,” she told the magazine. “When my husband told me what happened, I felt helpless. She was so little, she was probably so scared, probably afraid to say anything to anyone. It was a total nightmare for me.”
D.L. and her parents have since been reunited, but her mother said the separation has traumatized her daughter and she still acts as if she is in detention.
“I hugged her, I was crying. She didn’t recognize me,” the mother said. “She told me that she thought I was never going to be with her again and that she was going to have to live with another lady. She behaved like she was still in detention. She wouldn’t touch me, hug me, or kiss me.
“It lasted for a couple of days,” said D.L’s mother. “She didn’t know I was her mom. She thought I was another social worker.”
The girl’s mother said her daughter “behaves like she is programmed” and has said that she doesn’t “want to go back to that place where [she has to] sleep alone with other kids.”
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images: File