More than 15,000 children are being held in migrant children shelters around the country. A recent ProPublica investigation found some kids are reporting sexual assaults in shelters, and their allegations are not always thoroughly investigated.
One example came from a Miami-Dade shelter overseen by the Archdiocese of Miami. Catholic Charities' Msgr. Bryan Walsh Children's Village, formerly known as Boys Town, is located in Cutler Bay. As of last fall, it was hosting around 70 children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
WLRN reporter Nadege Green talked to Topher Sanders, one of the reporters at ProPublica who looked into an alleged sexual assault at the shelter.
WLRN: Your reporting led you to examine an incident at Boys Town in Cutler Bay, where some unaccompanied minors were being held. What happened there?
Topher Sanders: There was a young boy there named Alex, 13-years old, and he and his siblings made a long journey from Honduras and not long into his stay there he, in his words, was attacked by two other older boys and they attempted to take his clothes off and they exposed themselves and pressed parts of themselves against him. And he says to us that he told the officials at that shelter, which is run by Catholic Charities, that this attack had happened. He was told by officials there that police and other investigators would be coming to speak to him and no one came to speak to him.
The sexual assault allegation was eventually reported by the police. How long did it take for it to be reported and what happened when the police got involved?
It took about a month for it to be reported. And according to the report, they speak to the lead counselor there. The call came in as a sexual assault, but during the course of the conversation with the lead counselor they write that the lead counselor says they got to the bottom of it, "they" being the shelter, and that no sexual assault had occurred and they wrote it up that way and they took the counselors word for it. And that was the end of the case.
Miami-Dade police closed the case about 72 minutes after they got the call. Is that normal in a sexual assault case where the alleged victim has not been interviewed?
Experts in the field of child abuse tell us that even if what the shelter says Alex said to them, [that] it was playful in a sexual nature, that even if that's what they were told, it should have been a signal to those professionals to drill down as deep as they could with Alex to find out more.
Alex tells us that it was not that [and] that he told them the full and complete story. Experts say that to just go to a shelter, hear what the counselor has to say and to close a case without interviewing or talking to the child at the center of the case is not how it should be done.
Since ProPublica start asking questions Miami-Dade police has since reopened this case...
It prompted the officials at the Cutler Bay station to send more investigators out to Boys Town and those investigators did eventually make a phone call to Alex and speak with him and get his version of the story. And now the case is with the state attorney's office, under review.
The Archdiocese of Miami oversees the care of the children at Boys Town. How did they respond to the incident?
If Boys Town, being agents of Catholic Charities, they are their agents in the shelter—their response was to sit on this information that Alex gave them and to not report it to police. Eventually that resulted in them being cited by the state of Florida for violations including failure to report a potential assault to a youth.
Alex’s mother, she’s in the U.S. and has since been reunited with her son. How are they doing and are they still pursuing this case?
I think they're letting the system grind through as it will. The case is with the state attorney's office. Alex's mother is just so ecstatic to be reunited with her son. I think that this is a chapter they would like to see justice, but they also want to move forward with their lives.
Is there anything over the course of your reporting about what's happening in these shelters, not just in Miami-Dade County but across the country, that has surprised you?
Many cases we've seen have been thoroughly investigated and there have been convictions, but there have been a number of cases that we've discovered where what the young person is alleging is of the nature that many questions need to be asked and it does not appear from the paperwork that those questions were asked. Very similar to Alex's story.