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Immigrant teens placed in Virginia detention facility say they were beaten while restrained, isolated for days

Claims of severe physical and psychological abuse of immigrant teenagers at a juvenile detention facility near Staunton, Virginia, has prompted Gov. Ralph Northam to launch an investigation, hours after they were reported by the Associated Press. John Yang talks with the AP’s Michael Beisecker, one of the reporters who broke the story, about the troubling allegations and the child victims.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The forcible separation of children from their parents at the U.S. southern border has focused attention on the conditions of the detention of all young immigrants.

    And now John Yang reports that there are troubling allegations about one facility housing immigrant teens in Virginia.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, today Virginia Governor Ralph Northam launched an investigation into claims of severe physical abuse of immigrant teenagers at a juvenile detention facility near Staunton, Virginia.

    Northam acted just hours after the Associated Press reported the claims made by immigrants sent to the facility by U.S. authorities.

    One of the reporters who broke the story joins us now, Michael Biesecker, an AP investigative reporter.

    Michael, thank you very much for joining us.

  • Michael Biesecker:

    Good to be with you.

  • John Yang:

    First of all, tell us who these young people are in this facility and how they got there.

  • Michael Biesecker:

    Well, the six sworn statements that were filed as part of this lawsuit were from mostly kids from Central America and Mexico who crossed the border as unaccompanied minors and then were picked up by immigration authorities and put into the system under the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, which essentially puts these kids in shelters, in facilities that will house them while their immigration cases, often, you know, seeking refugee status, wind their way through immigration courts, which can take years.

  • John Yang:

    And so these are similar to the children who have been forcibly removed from their parents along the border in the last few weeks, but not the same.

  • Michael Biesecker:

    This lawsuit was filed before the zero tolerance policy was announced in April separating parents from their children.

    However, once those children are in the system now, they are classified as unaccompanied minors, and could end up at some of these same facilities, which is why we were looking at them.

  • John Yang:

    And these young people were suspected of being gang members?

  • Michael Biesecker:

    Well, in many cases, they have mental issues that can cause them to act out, have behavioral problems that may have made it difficult for them to acclimate to being in less secure facilities.

    So, what a program manager from this facility in Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, testified to before Congress back in April was that many of the kids that are labeled as being gang members, potentially violent criminals, they get them to the facility, they screen them, and they find out that they may not be gang members, they may not have created crimes.

    They may just be young people who have some behavioral issues that need to be treated.

  • John Yang:

    And what were the allegations that they made about their treatment?

  • Michael Biesecker:

    They're pretty severe and consistent between the six statements.

    Several of the children said that they were strapped to what was called a safety chair, essentially a restraint chair with wheels, that a white bag was placed over their head, and that they were left in there for sometimes days.

    Other teens and children, they ranged in age from 14 to 17, said that they — their clothes were taken away, and they were confined for days on end to their cells, steel beds, told that a window where people could see in 24 hours a day, and without their clothes in the Virginia mountains. And it was drafty.

  • John Yang:

    And these come in a lawsuit that's been filed against them. But you have got corroborating evidence, someone else to tell you the same thing?

  • Michael Biesecker:

    We were able to speak to someone in that facility who had been in that facility who had met face to face with these kids.

    And that person reported seeing bruises and in one case broken bones, that, when she asked what happened, she was told that the guards had assaulted them.

    And consistently, between the statements, the children said that they would be struck while they were in restraints, handcuffs and shackles.

  • John Yang:

    And what's been the response from the facility?

  • Michael Biesecker:

    There's not been any.

    In court documents, they deny all the allegations. However, we have been unable to get any response from them over the last two days. Also, the Department of Health and Human Services has yet to respond to our story. And we reached out to them in advance of publication.

  • John Yang:

    And, as you say, this goes back to the Obama administration. And you did speak to officials who served at that time in the administration.

  • Michael Biesecker:

    We talked to a top official who oversaw the refugee resettlement program under President Obama.

    And these allegations range from 2015 to 2018, so a span of years. That official said he was unaware of any complaints about abuse at Shenandoah Valley, though he did say that he heard about them after leaving. Had he heard about them while he was still in charge, he said he would have investigated them, and potentially terminated the contract, the federal contract, that pays approximately more than $4 million a year to house kids there, about 30 at a time.

  • John Yang:

    And there has been congressional testimony about this?

  • Michael Biesecker:

    There has been congressional testimony from someone who worked at the facility.

    And she said that, in some cases, the children there have behavioral problems that can be difficult to treat in what we could call a correctional setting, a prison-like facility, and that they would be better served in residential psychiatric treatment facilities.

    However, those facilities are often hesitant to take a child with a history of behavioral problems or the potential for violence.

  • John Yang:

    You call this a prison-like facility, but these children have not been convicted of any crimes.

  • Michael Biesecker:

    That's correct. They're housed in the same facility with local juvenile delinquents that have been either charged or adjudicated with serious crimes.

    However, they were largely segregated from those mostly white inmates, juvenile inmates. And the Latino kids said that their facility was much more stark, they didn't have access to cushy chairs, they didn't have as good of food, they didn't have access to video game consoles, and some of the perks that were afforded to the mostly white detainees they said they were deprived of.

  • John Yang:

    Michael Biesecker at the Associated Press, thanks so much.

  • Michael Biesecker:

    Thank you.

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