Lawmakers comment, press for answers regarding SVJC allegations

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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — Almost a week after initial reports of abuse at Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, the search for answers continues.

The allegations are of abuse against immigrants as young as 14 years old. In a statement, the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center denied these claims, saying that they did not have merit. Now, lawmakers are pressing for answers.

At Tuesday morning's senate finance committee hearing in Washington, Senator Mark Warner pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about letters he and Senator Tim Kaine had sent him that had not received a response.

"Minors being kept in solitary confinement for anywhere from 23 to 24 hours," Warner said. "To being strapped to a chair, strapped to a chair without any clothing."

The hearing was focused on drug pricing, but Azar responded to Warner, calling the allegations disturbing and serious. Azar also added that he hasn't seen anything to confirm the allegations.

In the last couple of days, protesters have rallied outside of the center in Augusta County.

The issue has lawmakers throughout the state urging action, including those running for congress to represent Virginia's sixth congressional district.

"When we have a government facility like this housing children, as a community member and as hopefully the next congresswoman from the sixth district, we want to make sure that kids are treated well," Jennifer Lewis, the Democratic nominee for Virginia's sixth district, said during one of the protests in the Valley.

Ben Cline, the Republican nominee for the same position, who currently serves in Virginia's House of Delegates, spoke to WHSV on the phone Tuesday afternoon.

"We have to wait for the independent investigation to find out what occured and take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the children are safe," Cline said.

Harrisonburg City Manager Eric Campbell, who serves on the commission for the SVJC, also commented on the matter.

Campbell's statement: "As a member jurisdiction of the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center Commission, the City’s goal is to maintain a healthy and safe environment for all youth at the Commission’s detention facility. City officials are aware of and concerned with the serious allegations made against the detention facility. We believe it is important to learn all the facts as the investigation(s) and court case related to the allegations proceed. After the facts are known, City Council will be in a position to consider what action the City will take as a member jurisdiction of the Commission."

Many local officials have declined to comment on the allegations, referring to the statement of Timmy Smith, the Executive Director of the SVJC:

"Since 2009, Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center (“SVJC”) has provided education, housing, and other services to immigrant minors detained by the federal government after attempting to enter the United States without an adult and without permission. SVJC has provided similar services to minors from local jurisdictions for over 50 years. SVJC does not have any immigrant minors in its facility who were separated from their parents while attempting to cross the border.

When providing services to immigrant minors, SVJC is subject to the requirements of and regular monitoring by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. SVJC takes all allegations of misconduct very seriously, including the complaints of abuse described in the pending federal lawsuit. After a thorough investigation, SVJC concluded that those allegations lack merit and has responded appropriately to the litigation. Further, SVJC’s understanding is that all three plaintiffs named in the case will be voluntarily dismissed as parties to the suit in the near future. SVJC welcomes the recent statements by Gov. Northam, Sen. Kaine, Sen. Warner, and Rep. Goodlatte, and looks forward to cooperating fully with any state and federal inquiries. It is SVJC’s hope that those inquiries take place as soon as possible so that the unfounded allegations in the lawsuit can be readily dispelled."

Congressman Bob Goodlatte called the claims "alarming" and said they merit a thorough investigation.

"I take claims of abuse seriously, and I expect that the relevant local, state, and federal entities will take them seriously as well," Goodlatte said. "Until today’s news report, I was not aware of these complaints."

Virginia's senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, said they would be "reaching out to the federal officials responsible for this program to demand answers."

The AP also reported that almost a quarter of the teens the center treats every year are immigrants. The center has been holding immigrant children since at least 2007. In 2015, WHSV reported on a 15-year-old Mexican native who fled the center, telling reporters "I ran because I missed my family."

Two of the teens involved in the ongoing lawsuits against SVJC are no longer in the United States, because they left 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.

Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the children detained on administrative immigration charges have not been convicted of any crime.

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.