Lawsuit alleging abuse of immigrant teens to move forward

By  | 

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) — Lawyers for immigrant teens who allege severe abuse inside a Verona detention center plan to push ahead with a federal civil rights lawsuit even though two of the teens have returned to their home countries and a third no longer wants to be part of the case.

A lawyer suing the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center said Tuesday they expect a fourth teen with similar allegations to join the case.

The Associated Press reported last month on sworn statements from Latino teens who alleged being beaten while handcuffed, locked up for long periods in solitary confinement and left nude and shivering in concrete cells.

Shenandoah's lawyers have denied the allegations. They asked U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Dillon to postpone a hearing scheduled for September to give them time to investigate the fourth teen's claims.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam last Thursday ordered two state agencies to open probes into the facility, hours after the AP first published allegations of severe abuse at the center. The AP report also cited a child development specialist who previously worked with teens at Shenandoah and said she saw bruises and broken bones the children said were caused by guards.

Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have sent a list of questions about the case to the head of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care of immigrant children held in federal custody. Last week, 77 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter from Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia seeking answers about the allegations of abuses at the lockup.

Shenandoah's executive director, Timothy J. Smith, said that an internal investigation had concluded that the incidents described in the lawsuit against his facility were unfounded and "can be readily dispelled." Smith said his staff will cooperate with state and federal investigations.

The Shenandoah lockup is one of 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.

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

Many of the children were sent there after U.S. immigration authorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13. President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited gang activity as justification for his crackdown on illegal immigration. A top manager at Shenandoah said at a recent congressional hearing that the children did not appear to be gang members and many were suffering from mental health issues tied to trauma in their home countries.

Academic studies of prison inmates kept in solitary confinement have found they often experience high anxiety that can cause panic attacks, paranoia and disordered thinking that may trigger angry outbursts. For those with mental health issues, the effects can be exacerbated, often worsening the behaviors the staff is attempting to discourage.