State probe says Latino teens strapped down but not abused

General By: The Bullet Wire 3:31 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — A state review into the treatment of immigrant teens held at a Virginia detention center confirmed the facility uses restraint techniques that can include strapping children to chairs and placing mesh bags over their heads.

But investigators concluded the harsh treatment described by detainees at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center did not meet the state’s legal threshold of abuse or neglect, according to a copy of the findings issued Monday by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and obtained by The Associated Press.

The regulators did make several recommendations to improve conditions inside the facility, including hiring more bilingual staff, expanding “culturally relevant programming” and improving screening to provide care for detainees who suffer from mental health issues. The state also said administrators should consider new furniture and fresh paint to make the jail-like facility “more developmentally appropriate.”

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the review in June, hours after the AP published first-person accounts by children as young as 14 who said they were handcuffed, shackled and beaten at the facility. They also described being stripped of their clothes and locked in solitary confinement, sometimes strapped to chairs with bags over their heads.

The state investigators said they were unable to interview the immigrant teens who made sworn statements saying they were severely abused. Those who made the initial complaints as part of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in November 2017 were subsequently transferred to other facilities or deported to their home countries after the resolution of their immigration cases.

Northam issued a statement applauding his administration’s “quick and comprehensive examination.”

“I take these allegations very seriously and directed members of my administration to immediately look into these claims of abuse and mistreatment,” he said. “The safety of every child being held there is of the utmost importance.”

The legal advocacy group representing the Latino teens suing the facility called the state’s review “deeply flawed” and said the investigators never contacted them or asked to speak to their clients.

“The children in this facility are denied necessary mental health care and subjected to abusive conditions,” said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “We look forward to proving our case in court.”

The incidents described in sworn statements from six Latino teens included in the lawsuit are alleged to have occurred from 2015 to 2018, under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the children detained on administrative immigration charges have not been convicted of any crime. The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees the care of immigrant children held in federal custody.

Following the AP’s report in June, state investigators interviewed 22 federal detainees currently held at the Shenandoah facility. Of those, three said they had experienced abusive behavior by staff. According to the state report, local child protective services investigators reviewed those complaints and determined they “did not meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect.”

The state investigators were only allowed to interview the federal detainees while a member of the facility’s staff was in the room. They also reviewed case files, medical records and other documents kept inside the facility, but were barred from making copies or keeping handwritten notes.

Shenandoah deputy director Timothy Showalter issued a statement Monday that promoted the state’s findings as an exoneration.

“The report confirms our long-standing dedication to being a well-run facility that treats our residents with respect and dignity,” the facility’s statement said.

Federal officials have refused to say when they first learned of the abuse allegations at Shenandoah and whether they have taken any independent action to investigate the complaints.

Asked for comment Monday, the press office for the Department of Health and Human Services provided an online link to a letter from Refugee Resettlement Director Scott Lloyd that was published in The Washington Post.

“We treat any allegation of abuse with the utmost seriousness,” Lloyd wrote. “Any assertion to the contrary is misguided and inaccurate.”

A separate class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of immigrant children housed at a nonprofit facility in Texas alleged the residents were routinely administered psychotropic drugs without their parents’ consent, keeping them in a sedated “chemical strait jacket.” Last month a federal judge found staff at the Shiloh Treatment Center outside Houston had violated federal law.

The Shenandoah lockup is one of only three juvenile detention facilities in the United States with federal contracts to provide “secure placement” for immigrant children who had problems at less-restrictive housing.

On average, 92 immigrant children annually cycle through Shenandoah, most of them from Mexico and Central America. It received $4.2 million in federal funds last year to house children ages 12 to 17 facing deportation proceedings or awaiting rulings on asylum claims.

While the Virginia investigators said they found no evidence of the beatings and other severe abuse described in the 2017 lawsuit, their report does confirm that staff at the facility are trained in the use of restraint chairs and “mesh spit guards” for “out-of-control residents who cannot be safely restrained by less intrusive methods.”

Such restraint devices are legal in juvenile detention facilities in Virginia, though regulations say they can never be used as punishment and are only appropriate “to ensure the safety and security of residents, staff and the facility.”

In two of the instances reviewed by investigators, the report says staff members were disciplined for using restraint techniques that did not follow state guidelines. However, those incidents, which were not detailed in the report, did not involve restraint chairs.

While some teens cited in the lawsuit reported being left in the restraint chair overnight or isolated in their cells for days at a time, the investigators said the documents they reviewed showed no record of that. According to the facility’s records, there was only one documented example of a child kept locked in isolation for 23 consecutive hours.

As part of their findings, the state investigators recommended the facility’s staff receive additional instruction in techniques for de-escalating conflicts and retraining in how to safely strap down unruly teens.

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Follow Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck

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Read the state report at: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4755218-Virginia-DJJ-Report-of-Findings.html

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Contact the AP’s investigative team with tips about this or other matters: https://www.ap.org/tips

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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