Shackled and beaten, verbally and physically assaulted, left nude and cold in solitary confinement – these are the stories of immigrant children detained in the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia.
In a Thursday report, The Associated Press detailed abuse complaints against the facility, which holds immigrant minors who are convicted of no crimes but are jailed as they await the completion of their immigration court cases.
“Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me,” said a Honduran immigrant who was sent to the facility when he was 15 years old. “Strapped me down all the way, from your feet all the way to your chest, you couldn’t really move. ... They have total control over you. They also put a bag over your head. It has little holes; you can see through it. But you feel suffocated with the bag on.”
How did these non-criminal children end up at a juvenile detention center?
Many of the children were sent there after U.S. immigration authorities 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.
But 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 — problems the detention facility is ill-equipped to treat.
The majority of the immigrant children held here crossed the border alone as unaccompanied minors; the AP notes that none involved with the lawsuit are there as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy that is separating children from their families at the border, though the outlet could not determine if any children have been sent the Shenandoah since the policy was implemented in April.
The lawsuit filed against Shenandoah alleges that young Latino immigrants held there “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.”
Also alleged in the lawsuit is disparate treatment of immigrant children versus the minors being held on criminal charges:
The immigrant detainees said they were largely segregated from the mostly white juveniles being held on criminal charges, but they could see that the other housing units had amenities that included plush chairs and video gaming consoles not available in the Spartan pods housing the Latinos.
A former child-development specialist who worked at the facility independently confirmed some of the stories to the AP, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The child development specialist who previously worked with teens at Shenandoah told AP that many there developed severe psychological problems after experiencing abuse from guards.
“The majority of the kids we worked with when we went to visit them were emotionally and verbally abused. I had a kid whose foot was broken by a guard,” she said. “They would get put in isolation for months for things like picking up a pencil when a guard had said not to move. Some of them started hearing voices that were telling them to hurt people or hurt themselves, and I knew when they had gotten to Shenandoah they were not having any violent thoughts.”