Sunday, March 25, 2007

72 children transferred out of youth shelter after allegations of sexual abuse

Abuse alleged in youth shelter for border crossers
Bustillo, Miguel. Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2007.

HOUSTON -- Federal officials have moved everyone out of a Texas shelter for children caught crossing the U.S. border on their own amid allegations that youngsters were being sexually abused.

The decision to transfer 72 children from the Texas Sheltered Care facility this week followed an investigation launched last month by the FBI and local authorities into allegations that the staff had abused numerous children.

The shelter in Nixon -- a south Texas town of about 2,000 people an hour east of San Antonio -- is one of 36 such facilities overseen by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

About 8,000 children, mainly teenagers from Central America who trekked thousands of miles to cross into America, are held at the shelters every year while authorities figure out whether to place them in foster care, hand them over to relatives in the U.S. or return them to their home countries. Most are deported. The average stay at Texas Sheltered Care is 18 days.

"These are unaccompanied minors, and I don't think there was much awareness" of their situation in the U.S., said David R. Walding, a legal aid worker for the Bernardo Kohler Center, a group that represents three allegedly abused children.

Unlike the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility -- a former jail in central Texas where children and their parents caught in the country illegally are held together -- the youth shelters do not resemble prisons, Walding said.

A female staff member who was suspected of sexually abusing children has been fired, officials said. They decided to move the children out of the shelter until they determine whether other steps need to be taken, including permanently closing the facility.

"It's unfortunate to have an allegation like this, because we pride ourselves on the care we give these children," said Josh Trent, the office's associate director in Washington. "There were some questions regarding management, and we wanted to err on the side of caution and make sure no children at the facility were at risk."

The U.S. attorney's office announced Thursday that it had decided not to prosecute anyone as a result of the FBI probe. That surprised some of the children's lawyers, who noted that they are considered wards of the federal government.

"Our office worked closely with agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation looking into allegations of criminal activity," Johnny Sutton, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in a statement.

"After a thorough review of the evidence and applicable federal law, this office concluded that the alleged activity ... could likely be more effectively addressed by state of Texas prosecutorial authorities," he added.

Erik Vasys, a spokesman for the FBI's San Antonio office, said investigators believed the alleged abuse had taken place.

Criminal charges against the state-licensed facility and its workers still might be pursued by the Gonzales County district attorney. It initially had concluded that the local sheriff did not have jurisdiction and brought in the FBI.

Some lawyers said they are worried that the children would be deported before they get the chance to testify against their alleged abusers.

"These kids need justice to be served, and that means criminal action," said Kevin Lashus, who represents five of the teens, who are scattered at shelters throughout Texas. "My kids should get to stay so that they can see this case to its conclusion."