Federal and state lawmakers are calling for action as the U.S. government continues to keep immigrant children locked in a Texas facility known for child deaths and serial abuse.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting documented a long, gruesome history of abuse at Shiloh Treatment Center and other residential facilities run by Clay Dean Hill. Since 1993, four children have died after being physically restrained by staff at Hill’s centers. Others have been punched and kicked by caretakers, sexually abused and forcibly injected with powerful drugs.
A federal judge ordered the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to remove children from Shiloh unless they pose “a risk of harm to self or others.” But the government hasn’t done so, leaving 25 immigrant children there, said attorney Carlos Holguín, who visited Shiloh last week.
“They’re in clear violation of the court’s order,” said Holguín, general counsel for the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law.
The children at Shiloh include many who are not a danger to themselves and others and who remain on psychotropic medications without parental consent, he said.
“There should be a zero tolerance policy for any contractor or facility that is found to be mistreating these vulnerable children. That is why I have called on HHS to investigate Shiloh and will continue to press them to do so,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement to Reveal.
Van Hollen was one of 17 senators who signed a June letter to Scott Lloyd, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, citing Reveal’s reporting on Shiloh and other facilities accused of abuse.
“I urge ORR to investigate these horrific reports and terminate any contracts with facilities found to be engaging in even one inhumane and medically unacceptable practice,” the letter states.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who organized the letter, said in a statement to Reveal this week: “I am extremely disturbed by the reports that immigrant children in ORR detention centers are being abused and forced to live in horrific conditions.”
The agency hasn’t responded to the letter, according to Gillibrand’s office. Hill and the refugee agency also have not responded to Reveal’s requests for interviews about Shiloh.
“As a matter of policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does not comment on matters related to ongoing litigation,” a spokeswoman said.
Another letter, citing Reveal’s findings and signed by 41 Senate Democrats, urged the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the federal program for detained immigrant children. The inspector general opened an ongoing review to “identify vulnerabilities in facilities’ efforts to protect children in their care from harm.” The review was sparked by news reports of abuse, according to a spokeswoman.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., responded to Reveal’s August investigation of Shiloh with a renewed call for oversight.
“These disturbing allegations further prove the need for rigorous congressional oversight of facilities where children are being cared for,” he said in a statement.
Merkley, who was turned away from a different facility in June, said Congress should pass legislation allowing lawmakers to visit facilities with 24 hours’ notice, instead of the current requirement of two weeks’ notice.
“Oversight means seeing children’s conditions as they are on a day-to-day basis, not dog-and-pony shows where facilities have two weeks’ notice to put a happy face on their operations,” he said.
The Administration for Children and Families, the parent agency responsible for detained immigrant children, has not responded to Reveal’s questions about Shiloh. But a spokeswoman pointed to a fact sheet that cites violent behavior by the children, who often are traumatized by their detention and violence in their home countries.
“While there is ongoing litigation regarding Shiloh RTC, it is important to note that all treatment occurs under the supervision of a licensed psychiatrist, and UAC that are admitted to Shiloh have performed serious acts such as suicidal attempts, or have engaged in behavior such as biting, spitting, kicking, hitting and throwing objects at peers and staff, and sexually inappropriate behavior,” the fact sheet states. UAC is an abbreviation for immigrant children who arrive in the country unaccompanied by parents or guardians.
Holguín, part of a group of attorneys suing over the treatment of the immigrant children, said the Office of Refugee Resettlement is trying “blame the children for what’s actually ORR’s own malfeasance.”
Behavioral problems, he said, often are triggered by the children’s detention at places such as Shiloh and certainly aren’t improved by it.
An 11-year-old Honduran girl, in a November court declaration, described Shiloh staff members saying things such as, “I’m going to kick your little ass,” giving children drug injections by force and trying to hurt her.
“I always feel really sad here,” she said. “I feel so sad that I want to hurt myself; I want to kill myself; and I want to cut myself, but I haven’t learned how to cut myself.”
“House of horrors” is how Texas state Sen. Sylvia Garcia describes Shiloh.
Garcia urged the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which licenses Shiloh, to close the center. Reveal found that state licensing officials should have barred Hill from running Shiloh when they shut down a sister facility he operated in 2011, after a child was killed there.
The commission “needs to do what it should have done 7 years ago and shut Shiloh down,” Garcia, a Houston Democrat running for Congress, said in a statement to Reveal.
“The repeated documented cases of abuse at the hands of Shiloh employees are beyond disturbing and we cannot allow this house of horrors to continue to operate,” Garcia said. “Just because the State of Texas no longer sends children to Shiloh, it doesn’t mean that State officials aren’t responsible for the children who are dying in this facility.”
Texas stopped sending foster children to Hill’s care after the fourth restraint-related death in 2010. Sixteen-year-old Michael Owens died of asphyxiation after being restrained on the floor. It was ruled a homicide.
State Sen. José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat, said Shiloh, among other such facilities, should be shuttered.
“Immigrant children should be with relatives or non-profits that actually provide care,” he said in a statement to Reveal. “The record of facilities in which immigrant children have been detained speaks for itself – sexual abuse, isolation, mistreatment. They should be shut down. Enough is enough.”
Two members of Congress previously called for Shiloh to be shut down. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, first made that plea in 2014, following a Houston Chronicle exposé.
In June, Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, told Reveal: “In light of this facility’s troubling history and current accusations, I recommend the closure of this facility and the removal of these children to a safer location until these accusations can be properly addressed.”
A spokeswoman for Olson said he’s raised the issue with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services but has not received a response.
Federal officials rely heavily on state oversight, but that oversight can be lacking.
Over the last five and a half years, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services completed 238 investigations of abuse or neglect allegations at facilities funded by the federal government to house immigrant children, according to state records. The state found five of the complaints, or 2 percent, were credible. The details of those investigations are confidential.
A federal judge excoriated the same agency in 2015 for failing to properly investigate abuse of foster children. Federal District Judge Janis Graham Jack cited a “staggering” error rate for abuse investigations.
State investigators, Jack said in her scathing opinion, “were failing to interview all necessary parties, ask pertinent questions, gather all evidence and key information, and address risks.”
Earlier this year, Jack ordered continued monitoring of the state system by special masters, which is being appealed by the state attorney general.
Holguín said many immigrant children don’t complain about abuse because they are afraid of retaliation.
“They feel that if they do report it, nothing will come of it, which your data tends to corroborate,” he said.
Patrick Crimmins, spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said: “We stand by the integrity of our investigators, and the quality of our investigations.”
This story was edited by Ziva Branstetter and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
Will Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @willCIR.