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Inhumane Conditions Alleged at Juvenile Detention Center Near Staunton

A class action lawsuit filed by a 17-year-old Mexican boy detained at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton shines a light on what has been described as brutal, inhumane conditions faced by roughly 30 unaccompanied immigrant children confined there.  Their crime?  Entering the United States, often alone, to flee violence south of the border.  WMRA's Jessie Knadler has the first in this two-part report.

His name in the lawsuit is John Doe. It alleges that from a young age, he was traumatized by gang violence in Mexico. At 15, he fled the country but was picked up by ICE at the border. It says he was eventually transferred to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center just outside of Staunton. It is one of two maximum security facilities that house unaccompanied alien children in the United States.

The lawsuit accuses the Center of failure to provide adequate mental health services for prisoners such as Doe, who are survivors of trauma. It alleges violence, psychological abuse, and excessive seclusion and restraint by an ill equipped staff. Doe says he cuts himself and bangs his head against the floor to deal with feelings of desperation and helplessness. The Center did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit echoes what other immigrant detainees have told Hollie Webb, a third year law student who works in the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Washington and Lee University.

HOLLIE WEBB: They’re running from terrible situations that most people can’t imagine, like the kinds of violence and things that  they’ve been through and seen, it would be comparable to a soldier coming back from a war.

Most of the kids come from from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Webb and a fellow student helped one young Honduran apply for asylum. This child grew up in the violent city of San Pedro Sula and had been abandoned by his parents.

WEBB:  There was a neighborhood there that was actually called “the colony of the dismembered.”

The gang MS 13 descended on his neighborhood. People barricaded themselves inside their homes.

WEBB:  But the gang wanted this house that my client lived in and they just took it over, I mean they came up and showed up with guns. ‘We’re taking your house.’ They tortured people on the porch. The kids could see what was going on through the cracks in the wall.

After years of tyranny, the child and his sister fled. Along with John Doe and 30 others, he’s now housed at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center. It's one of a network of facilities contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency charged with the care and placement of undocumented children.

The number of kids in federal care went from 6,600 in 2011 to more than 57,000 in 2014, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The surge caused ORR to scramble for beds, contracting with more detention facilities.

David Baluarte is a law professor at W&L and a director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic.

BALUARTE:  There is no state protection for these kids so they come here in search of protection and that oftentimes ends up being an asylum claim, and the asylum claims are very difficult to win. Legally, they can be very challenging.

If unaccompanied kids can’t be repatriated – either they say they’re fleeing violence or they have no home to go back to – they may be released to family or another sponsor in the United States. Barring that, they stay in shelters, foster care or detention centers. Those deemed dangerous go to Shenandoah. But some kids end up in these restrictive facilities unnecessarily. Some have been coached to embellish stories of their upbringing in order to bolster an asylum claim.

SETH MICHELSON:  Some of the claims are pretty wild about very young children claiming to have used weapons against multiple narco trafficantes who are conducting child sex slavery.

Seth Michelson is a poetry professor at Washington and Lee who works with these children.

MICHELSON: So even if it were true, the child escaping sexual enslavement would be a traumatized survivor of sexual abuse and a refugee.

The irony is that these stories, embellished or not, can be used against them later. Webb again:  

WEBB:  When they come into these facilities they have clinicians and doctors but nothing that they say is confidential. So whatever they report to their doctor, their doctor also reports it to ICE. They’re kids. They tell them that they can trust them and tell me all about your situation. And then they go file a report and that’s how they get kicked up in security levels.

Baluarte again:

BALUARTE:  You need to look in the face of these children and understand what they’ve been through. What this lawsuit has brought to light is not just that we’re detaining these kids in such desperate need of help but that we’re detaining them in deplorable conditions.  The circumstances in which they’re being detained really aggravates some of the deep psychological trauma that they’ve suffered and that they need better care and treatment.

Webb’s client never made it out of confinement. He was transferred to an adult prison upon his 18th birthday.

Part 2 of this series takes a look at how these undocumented youth cope with confinement and trauma.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag