The Shiloh Treatment Center has been paid $26 million since 2013 by the federal government to house migrant children. The company that operates the facility south of Houston has a history of problems, including deaths of children in its custody and allegations that children were systematically drugged with psychotropic medications. Credit: Pu Ying Huang/The Texas Tribune

Behind Reveal’s exposé about the use of psychotropic drugs in the migrant youth penal system are children and teenagers who describe confusion, desperation and the way the medications affected them.

“I don’t like taking the medicine because it makes me feel angry. It makes me feel like hitting a wall or ripping up paper,” said one 16-year-old from Mexico.

The youths landed at Shiloh Treatment Center near Houston after they were “stepped up” – jargon for being transferred to a high-security facility after acting out while in immigrant detention.

Some were puzzled about why they ended up there, talking of crying or feeling down but behaving as best as they could to quickly get back to their families. Others recount horrific histories of trauma that were used as recommendations for transfer. One said she was gang raped at 15 in El Salvador.

In statements to attorneys as part of a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, the kids seemed aware that something was seriously wrong as they were given cup after cup of often-mysterious pills, held down by orderlies so a needle could be stuck in their arm and told their stay at the trailer park-turned-shelter would be prolonged if they didn’t comply.

And, again and again, the children described feeling helpless to do anything about it.

Fistfuls of mystery pills

Patient profiles filed as exhibits in Flores et al. v. Jeffrey Sessions show some children were given medications morning, noon and night – as many as 18 pills per day.

“I am given seven pills every day. In the morning, I take 4 pills and then 3 in the evening. The medicine is supposed to help with epilepsy and anxiety. The doctor has changed my pills a couple of times. The medicine makes me feel dizzy and sometimes makes it hard to concentrate. I have no appetite.” – 16-year-old from Honduras

“I take pills in the morning, afternoon, and night. In the morning, there are a lot of pills in a cup. I have never counted them so I don’t know how many. I have asked the name of the pills, but I don’t remember. During the afternoon and the night, there are about the same number of pills in a cup. Sometimes the pills make me feel tired and it is hard to concentrate at school.” – 13-year-old from Mexico

“I have to take pills in the morning, afternoon, and night. I take 4 or 5 pills in the morning, 1 pill in afternoon, and 1 pill at night. In the morning, one of the pills is for anxiety. I don’t know what the other pills are for. I don’t like taking the medicine because it makes me sleepy and dizzy. But, if I don’t take the pills, they will give me a report and I will have to stay at Shiloh longer.” – 16-year-old from Mexico

‘No idea what they were giving me’

Children said that they didn’t know what their pills were for and that it was more than they previously had been taking.

“I am given three pills every day. In the morning I take one pill, I don’t know what it is. In the evening, I take Prozac and Melatonin. The staff checks our mouths to make sure that we have taken our medicine. I don’t think that my family was asked before giving me medicine. My understanding is that the government makes those decisions.” – 16-year-old from El Salvador

“ln Shiloh they gave me even more medicine. I took nine pills in the morning and seven in the evening. I don’t know what medications I was taking; no one ever told me that. I don’t know what my diagnosis or illness is. The medicine made me fat. I used to be really skinny. It made me very hungry; I used to eat three plates at a time.” – Child from Mexico

“At Shiloh, (the doctor) has me on many more medications, and I have to take them during the day and at night. I take 4 pills in the morning, I do not know what they are for. I take another pill at 4 pm and then I have to take 5 more pills at night. I have not been told why I am required to take all this medication. When I was in Honduras, I did not take any pills and I was good. I was a normal kid. When I take medicine, I do not have any mood. It is disgusting.” – 11-year-old from Honduras

‘Vitaminsthat make me sleepy

Children were told some of the drugs were vitamins to maintain their health and weight. Side effects suggest otherwise.

“The staff told me that some of the pills are vitamins because they think I need to gain weight. The vitamins changed about two times, and each time I feel different.” – 13-year-old from Mexico

“I take four pills in the morning and about four to six pills in the evening. I don’t know what all the pills are for, but I think the ones I take at night are for depression and anxiety. When I have asked about the additional medication, I have been told that the pills are vitamins. I am also told that the pills are recommended by my doctor. … I do not want to take the pills because I don’t think they help me and they make me sleepy.” – 13-year-old from El Salvador

“I take six pills in the morning and four pills in the night. One pill in the morning is Prozac, and I am told the other five are vitamins. I am told the four pills I take at night are vitamins. I do not know if my mother gave her permission for me to take the pills.” – 17-year-old from Honduras

Threats and promises

Staff promised that if they take medication, the youths said, it would help them get released and reunited with family.

“I have not refused taking the pills because I was told that the doctor will see that I refused the medication and that would make my stay at Shiloh longer because it would make it harder for the doctor to release me.” –13-year-old from El Salvador

“I was told by staff members that if I take my medication, (the doctor) would release me and I would be placed on a foster care list. I am not eligible for foster care unless I take my medication and (the doctor) releases me.” – Teenager from Honduras

“I have told staff that I do not want to take the medication, but they have told me that I need it and that I will get a report if I do not take it. A report means I would have to stay at Shiloh for thirty more days. I have seen other kids getting reports and having to stay at Shiloh longer because of the reports.” – 17-year-old from Honduras

Held down and injected

Children said they were pinned down by staff members and given injections.

“After the doctor came, the supervisor told me I was going to get a medication injection to calm me down. Before they gave me the injection, I was feeling dizzy and was still having a hard time breathing. I was in a lot of pain with bruises all over, and I did not want the injection. Two staff grabbed me, and the doctor gave me the injection despite my objection and left me there on the bed.” – 13-year-old from El Salvador

“Sometimes they give me forced injections. The last time was a few weeks ago. I have been given injections many times. When I get upset, one or two staff hold my arms and the nurse gives me an injection.” – 16-year-old from Mexico

“When he would call the medical staff, they would come and give me a shot to tranquilize me. It happened many times. They would give me the shot and then I would start to feel sleepy and heavy, and like I didn’t have any strength. I would sleep for three or four hours and then wake up and slowly start to feel my strength return. When they did that they left me in the classroom near the wall to sleep.” – Child from Mexico

Pushed and pinned

And there was other violence as well.

“At some point the supervisor placed me against the wall, but the top of my head touched the wall, so from my head to my back, my body was in a backwards C-shape. The supervisor pushed me against the wall with all of his weight and this caused my neck to compress. This made me feel like I was choking and it was hard for me to breathe.” – 13-year-old from El Salvador

“I wanted to cry by myself so I stood near a window. The staff panicked and claimed that I was trying to jump out the window. The staff then grabbed and four people held me down.” – 17-year-old from Honduras

“On at least two occasions staff members have tried to hurt me. One time a staff member put her two thumbs up to my throat and her hands around my neck. It hurt and I was gasping for breath. The staff member said she was just ‘playing’ but I felt scared.” – 11-year-old from Honduras

Sohyeon Hwang can be reached at shwang@revealnews.org, and Matt Smith can be reached at msmith@revealnews.org. Follow Smith on Twitter:  @SFMattSmith.

Matt Smith is a reporter for Reveal, covering religion. Smith's two-decade career in journalism began at The Sacramento Union in California. He went on to positions at newspapers in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Twin Falls, Idaho; Fairfield, California; and Newport News, Virginia. Between 1994 and 1997, Smith covered Latin America as a reporter in Dow Jones & Co.'s Mexico City bureau. For 14 years, he was a lead columnist at Village Voice Media in San Francisco. He came to Reveal from The Bay Citizen. Smith holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Before his career in journalism, Smith was a professional bicycle racer. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.