WASHINGTON (AP) — A lawyer for immigrant children who say they were cuffed and beaten by staff inside a Virginia detention facility said Friday they plan to press forward with a federal civil-rights lawsuit, even though two of the teens involved in the case are no longer in the United States.
Hannah M. Lieberman said two of the unidentified teens who described severe abuse inside the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center recently left the country following the resolution of their immigration cases. A third teen remains in federal custody, but has been transferred to another detention facility in Alexandria, Virginia.
Shenandoah executive director Timothy J. Smith said Friday that an internal investigation had concluded that the incidents described in the lawsuit filed against his facility last year are unfounded and "can be readily dispelled." Smith says his staff will fully cooperate with state and federal investigations.
Lieberman said her legal team at the Washington Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs will consult with the federal district court judge overseeing the case about how to proceed.
"These kids show a remarkable consistency in their stories, and they have no connection to one another," Lieberman said. "We believe our kids."
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Thursday ordered two state agencies to open probes into the facility, hours after The Associated Press first published first-person accounts of severe abuse described by children as young as 14. The teens said they were handcuffed, shackled and beaten by guards. They also described being stripped of their clothes and locked in solitary confinement for days at a time.
The incidents described in sworn statements from six Latino teens are alleged to have occurred between 2015 and 2018, under both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the children detained on administrative immigration charges have not been convicted of any crime.
Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine sent a list of questions about the case Friday to the head of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care of immigrant children held in federal custody.
The senators asked whether regulators had received any past complaints involving the facility located near Staunton, Virginia. The Democrats also want to know whether there is a system in place to discipline staff members who abuse children in federal custody.
Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Refugee Resettlement office, have refused to discuss when they first learned of the abuse allegations at the Shenandoah center and whether any action has been taken to determine the veracity of those claims.
"HHS takes seriously the responsibly of ensuring the care of unaccompanied minors by our grantees," said Ryan Murphy, a spokesman for the agency, referring to facilities that receive federal money to house immigrant children.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The Shenandoah lockup is one of only three juvenile detention facilities in the United States with federal contracts to provide "secure placement" for immigrant children who had problems at less-restrictive housing.
The center was built by a coalition of seven nearby towns and counties to lock up local kids charged with serious crimes. Since 2007, about half the 58 beds are occupied by male and female immigrants between the ages of 12 and 17 facing deportation proceedings or awaiting rulings on asylum claims. It received $4.2 million in federal funds last year to house the immigrant children.
On average, 92 immigrant children each year cycle through Shenandoah, most of them from Mexico and Central America.
As part of a federal class-action lawsuit, young immigrants held at the Shenandoah facility said in sworn statements said they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells. Children as young as 14 also said the guards there stripped them of their clothes and strapped them to chairs with bags placed over their heads.