Governor orders probe of abuse claims by immigrant children

The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center is shown Wednesday in Staunton, Va. AP Photo/Zachary Wajsgras

WASHINGTON (AP) — Virginia's governor ordered state officials Thursday to investigate abuse claims by children at an immigration detention facility who said they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the probe in a tweet hours after The Associated Press reported the allegations. They were included in a federal civil rights lawsuit with a half-dozen sworn statements from Latino youths held for months or years at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center. The AP report also cited an adult who saw bruises and broken bones the children said were caused by guards.

Northam, a Democrat, said the allegations were disturbing and directed the state's secretary of public safety and homeland security and the Department of Juvenile Justice to report back to him "to ensure the safety of every child being held there."

Children as young as 14 said the guards there stripped them of their clothes and strapped them to chairs with bags placed over their heads.

"Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me," said a Honduran immigrant who was sent to the facility when he was 15 years old. "Strapped me down all the way, from your feet all the way to your chest, you couldn't really move. ... They have total control over you. They also put a bag over your head. It has little holes; you can see through it. But you feel suffocated with the bag on."

In addition to the children's first-hand, translated accounts in court filings, a former child-development specialist who worked inside the facility independently told The Associated Press this week that she saw kids there with serious injuries. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to publicly discuss the children's cases.

In court filings, lawyers for the detention facility have denied all the allegations of physical abuse. The incidents described in the lawsuit occurred from 2015 to 2018, during both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Many of the children were sent there after U.S. immigration authorities accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13. President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited gang activity as justification for his crackdown on illegal immigration.

Trump said Wednesday that "our Border Patrol agents and our ICE agents have done one great job" cracking down on MS-13 gang members. "We're throwing them out by the thousands," he said.

But a top manager at the Shenandoah center said during a recent congressional hearing that the children did not appear to be gang members and were suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma that happened in their home countries — problems the detention facility is ill-equipped to treat.

"The youth were being screened as gang-involved individuals. And then when they came into our care, and they were assessed by our clinical and case management staff ... they weren't necessarily identified as gang-involved individuals," said Kelsey Wong, a program director at the facility. She testified April 26 before a Senate subcommittee reviewing the treatment of immigrant children apprehended by the Homeland Security Department.

Most children held in the Shenandoah facility who were the focus of the abuse lawsuit were caught crossing the border illegally alone. They were not the children who have been separated from their families under the Trump administration's recent policy and are now in the government's care. But the facility operates under the same program run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. It was not immediately clear whether any separated children have been sent to Shenandoah Valley since the Trump administration in April announced its "zero tolerance" policy toward immigrant families, after the lawsuit was filed.

It also was not immediately clear when federal authorities first learned of the abuse claims and whether any action was taken. Spokespeople for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday.

Robert Carey, who served as director of Refugee Resettlement under the Obama administration, said Tuesday he only heard about the complaints at the Shenandoah center after he left office in January 2017. Had he known, Carey said, he "would have been all over that trying to figure out what needed to be done, including termination of contracts."

Following AP's report about the abuse accusations, Virginia's two Democratic senators said Thursday they would seek to investigate conditions inside the Shenandoah facility.

In a tweet, Sen. Tim Kaine said: "Deeply troubled by this report. We need answers on what happened at this facility, and my staff and I are going to demand them."

Sen. Mark Warner said at a public forum on immigration issues that he will seek to visit the detention center.

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican whose home district includes the Shenandoah facility, said he was unaware of any complaints prior to the AP's report. An architect of the current effort by GOP conservatives to pass tougher restrictions on legal immigration, Goodlatte called the abuse allegations "alarming" and said they "certainly merit a thorough investigation to uncover the truth."

The Shenandoah lockup is one of only three juvenile detention facilities in the United States with federal contracts to provide "secure placement" for children who had problems at less-restrictive housing. The Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in California has faced litigation over immigrant children mischaracterized as gang members. In Alexandria, Virginia, a multi-jurisdiction commission overseeing the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center has said it will end its federal contract to house young immigration detainees when it expires in September.

The Shenandoah detention center was built by a coalition of seven nearby towns and counties to lock up local kids charged with serious crimes. Since 2007, about half the 58 beds are occupied by male and female immigrants between the ages of 12 and 17 facing deportation proceedings or awaiting rulings on asylum claims. Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the children detained on administrative immigration charges have not yet been convicted of any crime.

Virginia ranks among the worst states in the nation for wait times in federal immigration courts, with an average of 806 days before a ruling. Nationally, only about half of juveniles facing deportation are represented by a lawyer, according to Justice Department data.

On average, 92 immigrant children each year cycle through Shenandoah, most of them from Mexico and Central America.

Wong said many of the 30 or so children housed there on any given day have mental health needs that would be better served in a residential treatment unit. But such facilities are often unwilling to accept children with significant behavioral issues, she said.

Wong and other managers at the Shenandoah center, including Executive Director Timothy J. Smith, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment this week.