Virginia detention facility for young migrants received over $4.6 million in government grants after abuse allegations

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
This image provided by the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center shows part of the interior of the building in Staunton, Va. (Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center via AP)

WASHINGTON — The federal government continued to provide million-dollar grants to a juvenile detention center in Virginia to hold child migrants even after a lawsuit was filed against the facility alleging the young immigrants there were subjected to “brutal, inhumane conditions,” including racial discrimination and physical violence.

“Young people in [Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center] are subjected to unconstitutional conditions that shock the conscience, including violence by staff, abusive and excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and the denial of necessary mental health care,” the complaint filed against the facility said. These violations reflect a disorganized, untrained, and understaffed facility that houses immigrant children in brutal, inhumane conditions.”

The Associated Press reported on the lawsuit against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center on Thursday amid the national controversy over the treatment of child migrants. It was originally filed on Oct. 4, 2017. Since then, data reviewed by Yahoo News showed the detention center near Staunton, Va., has received $4,669,320 in grants from the Department of Health and Human Services’ “unaccompanied alien children program.”

According to the lawsuit, immigrant children at the facility were “locked in their rooms for approximately 12-14 hours per day” and “fed substandard meals that contain too few calories and are often served cold.” The complaint said detainees are held in “a room with a mattress, a sink, and a toilet” where staff can observe them going to the bathroom.

The suit further said staff members at the facility are mostly white and non-Spanish speaking and that they “routinely insult, taunt, and harass the immigrant youth … based on their language, race, and/or national origin.” The complaint also accused staffers of regularly “physically assaulting the youth, applying an excessive amount of force that goes far beyond what is needed to establish or regain control.” The suit alleged staff sometimes punish the children by stripping them of their clothes and confining them to their rooms for extended periods where they are sometimes additionally restrained with “handcuffs and cloth shackles on their hands and feet.” In one instance described in the complaint, a child was “forced to wear handcuffs on his wrists and shackles on his feet for approximately 10 days in a row.”

Along with this mistreatment, the suit said, children at the facility are given inadequate medical care. As a result of the conditions at the detention center, the complaint described some of the young migrants engaging in “cutting and other self-harming behaviors, including ingesting shampoo and attempting to choke themselves.” The suit said Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center staff members are “deliberately indifferent” to the children’s distress.

The court filings in the case include what the Associated Press described as “a half-dozen sworn statements from Latino teens jailed there for months or years.” That testimony includes multiple allegations of physical abuse and other mistreatment. The Associated Press also reported that a “a former child-development specialist who worked inside the facility” who requested anonymity said “she saw kids there with bruises and broken bones they blamed on guards.”

Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center is operated by a state-chartered commission and houses juvenile offenders from three Virginia counties and four nearby cities.

The center has denied all wrongdoing in court filings. Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Executive Director Timothy Smith and Deputy Director Timothy Showalter sent a statement to Yahoo News describing the allegations in the lawsuit as baseless.

“Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center believes the allegations of the Complaint to be without merit and looks forward to the opportunity to present evidence that will allow a jury to reach the same conclusion,” the statement said.

Health and Human Services runs a system of approximately 100 shelters in 17 states where child migrants are held pending immigration proceedings after making illegal border crossings. According to the Associated Press, Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center is “one of only three” juvenile detention facilities in the country with federal contracts to provide “secure placement” to immigrant children who have had issues in other shelter facilities.

HHS spokesperson Ryan Murphy told Yahoo News the department sends child migrants placed in their care to “a more restrictive setting” in cases where “it is determined that the child or teenager may present a danger to self or others.” According to Murphy, this process includes “the recommendation of a mental health professional” and is “consistent with all relevant legal requirements.” He also said these facilities “must be licensed by the state they operate in and are required to follow all licensing standards of that state” and that HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which runs the shelter program “conducts Federal monitoring visits and medical reviews, and takes seriously the responsibly of caring for each child.”

“ ORR takes appropriate action should there be any allegation of abuse,” Murphy said.

According to the Associated Press, “many of the children” housed at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center “were sent there after U.S. immigration authorities accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13.” President Trump has often pointed to gangs, particularly MS-13, as justification for his crackdown on illegal immigration. However, the Associated Press noted that “a top manager at the Shenandoah center said during a recent congressional hearing that the children did not appear to be gang members and were suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma that happened in their home countries.”

“The youth were being screened as gang-involved individuals. And then when they came into our care, and they were assessed by our clinical and case management staff … they weren’t necessarily identified as gang-involved individuals,” Kelsey Wong, a program director at SVJC, said during an April 26 Senate hearing on the treatment of immigrant children.

The detention program has been the subject of intense scrutiny since the Trump administration enacted a “zero tolerance” policy in May that led to thousands of young immigrants being separated from their parents and detained in the HHS shelter system.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for HHS told Yahoo News that the agency had 11,786 child migrants in its shelter system. That same official said the young immigrants in custody included 2,342 children who were separated from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9. Most of the rest were teenagers who crossed the border on their own, designated as “unaccompanied alien children.”

SVJC does not have any immigrant minors in its facility who were separated from their parents while attempting to cross the border,” Smith, the center’s executive director, said in a statement.

On Wednesday, President Trump signed an executive order intended to “address” child separations going forward. However, officials confirmed to Yahoo News that the president’s order wouldn’t change the situation for children who have already been taken from their families.

The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center on Wednesday. (Photo: Zachary Wajsgras/AP)

The lawsuit against Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center was filed on behalf of a 17-year-old Latino immigrant who was confined at the facility. He was identified only as “John Doe” in the complaint, which said he was a Mexican citizen who was apprehended by ICE officers after attempting to cross the U.S. border in early August 2015. He was traveling alone and was not separated from his family. The boy was transferred to multiple HHS facilities before ending up in Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center on April 15, 2016.

According to the complaint filed by the boy’s attorneys, he is “one of approximately 30 unaccompanied immigrant minors under detention in the facility,” which also holds American children who have been judged to be juvenile delinquents. His lawyers are asking the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center to change its practices and provide the young immigrants “with the standard of care and conditions of confinement mandated by the United States Constitution.”

Hannah Lieberman, one of the boy’s lawyers, declined to comment on this story citing the pending litigation. The lawsuit is ongoing, and the next hearing is set for July 3.

Overall, the records reviewed by Yahoo News show that, from December 2010 until May of this year, Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center received over $28.3 million in HHS grants to house young migrants. The facility began to be used during the Obama administration, but records indicate the government has increasingly relied on it since Trump took office.

From 2011 through 2016, Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center received an average of about $3.3 million per year in HHS grants to provide shelter for young immigrants. In 2017, the records show HHS gave the facility over $4 million, the most it has received. For this year, the records show Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center has received over $3.58 million as of May 10, putting it on track for the most ever.

Update [June 22 9:34 a.m.]: This story was updated to include a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Update [June 22 5:17 p.m.]: This story was updated with an additional statement from Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Executive Director Timothy Smith.

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