Recently national attention turned to the class action lawsuit filed on behalf of unaccompanied immigrant minors detained at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton. Its allegations have caused concern for many, including a clinical psychologist and local, state and federal officials. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.
The resurfacing in June of news about allegations of mistreatment of unaccompanied immigrant minors placed at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, or SVJC, came as the nation was grappling with the horror of the Trump administration’s border policy that separated families. The allegations grabbed widespread attention, and the Staunton/Augusta/Waynesboro Citizen Action Network rallied at the facility.
In an interview last week, Senator Mark Warner described some of the abuse alleged in the lawsuit, which was filed last October.
SENATOR MARK WARNER: Some of the reports indicated that some of these young people had been stripped and locked into a chair, some people having hoods put over their head. Totally inappropriate behavior.
The facility is owned and operated by a commission of seven localities: the counties of Augusta, Rockbridge, and Rockingham, and the cities of Harrisonburg, Lexington, Staunton, and Waynesboro. Its grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, brought in more than $4.1 million in the fiscal year ending in 2017, or more than two-thirds of the facility’s annual operating expenses.
WARNER: At this point I believe there are 14 of these young immigrant children at the facility. None of these individuals are part of the the Trump Administration’s zero tolerance policy where people were separated at the border.
As of last week, Warner’s and Senator Tim Kaine’s questions about the federal program at SVJC have gone unanswered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR.
Governor Ralph Northam has ordered an investigation, and the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, which regulates SVJC, reported that it and a local child protective services worker have interviewed the current federal residents at the facility. News outlets reported last week that three of the plaintiffs have either been deported or withdrawn from the lawsuit, but that a John Doe 4 has been added.
ORR says on its website that it “places an unaccompanied child in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child, taking into consideration danger to self, danger to the community, and risk of flight.”
The use of a “least restrictive setting” would be appropriate, said Harrisonburg clinical psychologist Ronda Weber.
RONDA WEBER: The standard of care in our country is, for both mental health and also for juveniles who have conduct problems, is always to do the least restrictive environment, and so any kind of detention center would be considered a last resort, after all other kinds of community alternatives have been pursued and completely exhausted.
Weber said she grew up in Honduras, and returns there for ongoing projects, so she is familiar with the conditions that drive people to come to the U.S. A few years ago she worked with a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor detained at SVJC, and Weber said she was concerned that such detention was abusive in itself, traumatic even if facility staff were following procedures.
WEBER: For children who come here fleeing a situation that for them was completely intolerable, intolerable enough to make the journey here, which in and of itself is an extremely traumatic situation, and then to be detained and locked up, and nobody speaks their language, nobody can explain to them how long they’re going to be there, what’s going to happen. And it’s set up to be a punitive environment. It’s not set up to be a therapeutic environment.
It can cause complex trauma, which can impact generations, Weber said.
WEBER: It fundamentally alters the person and their sense of themselves and of their world and of people around them. I don’t have any question that there would be a way to develop specialized foster or group homes or shelters for these kids that would actually save money and could be therapeutic and at least not traumatic.
Many officials in the localities that own and operate SVJC did not respond to requests for comment for this report, or declined to comment beyond providing statements that included general concern about the safety and welfare of children or denial of the allegations.
But Harrisonburg mayor Deanna Reed said this:
DEANNA REED: I feel comfortable with the fact that our governor is doing an investigation, and I also understand the outcry from our citizens.
In Northern Virginia, a similar detention center commission has voted not to renew its federal contract.
REED: I know that our citizens have asked all of us – not only Harrisonburg; everyone is looking into – Is that a possibility?
Again, Senator Warner:
WARNER: Once we get the full answers of what has happened or has not happened in Staunton, we do need to step back and say, Is it appropriate for these kind of children to be housed in what is otherwise viewed as a regional facility dealing with kids in the Valley?
But there’s an even bigger topic on Warner’s mind.
WARNER: It raises the overall question of why we need immigration reform. …. I think we’re seeing the failure of an immigration policy play out right now in the Shenandoah Valley.
For WMRA News, I’m Christopher Clymer Kurtz.