While Restrained, Bags Were Placed Over The Heads Of Detained Migrant Children
Migrant teens detained at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia were subjected to solitary confinement, restraint in chairs with bags over their heads, and numerous other abuses, according to a lawsuit filed on their behalf.
Mother Jones reported that several teens told their stories as part of the lawsuit, including Antonio (not his real name), who said he was tied to a chair five times during his more than year and a half long stay at Shenandoah.
Like the other teens, Antonio — who was 15 at the time — had not broken the law but was placed at the detention center while he awaited immigration proceedings, after fleeing violence in Mexico and arriving at the U.S. border alone.
Antonio’s story was not unique, Mother Jones reported: “A boy from Honduras described his time in the chair as almost suffocating. ‘When you’re in crisis, the bag is the least helpful thing—it’s scary,’ he said, adding that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder before arriving in Virginia. A third teen recalled peeing his pants while restrained in the chair.”
The plight of migrant children held at Shenandoah — one of two juvenile detention centers that the Office of Refugee Resettlement uses to hold unaccompanied minors who are deemed threatening — first garnered national attention after the Associated Press reported on the situation in 2018.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam subsequently ordered an investigation into the matter the same year.
But the courts were already aware of the alleged abuse by the time Northam stepped in, according to Mother Jones: “The immigrant teens told their stories as part of a lawsuit about conditions at the juvenile hall, first filed in 2017 by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.”
The lawsuit alleged that rather than meeting with trauma-informed mental health care at the facility, the teens were “subjected to unconstitutional conditions that shock the conscience,” including violence by staff, isolation, and excessive use of the restraint chair.
In December 2018, a federal judge ruled against the lawsuit’s claim for better mental health care but found that there were grounds to move forward with a trial over excessive force.
As the teens pursue their case in a higher court, dozens of elected prosecutors and criminal justice reform advocates have filed a brief on their behalf, Mother Jones reported.
Earlier this month, the teens’ newest allies argued to the court that the previous ruling was wrong. “The court’s decision,” they wrote, did not consider that the immigrant teens “are children, and have not been adjudicated delinquent or convicted of any offense. The purpose of their detention is…to protect them from harm, not to punish them.”
Instead, juvenile hall staffers “responded to the Plaintiffs’ acting out with physical abuse and punitive imposition of restraints and solitary confinement.”
In 2018, US District Judge Elizabeth Dillon had ruled that the lawsuit’s claim that mental health care was so inadequate at Shenandoah so as to violate the teens’ Constitutional rights was flawed.
“Not surprisingly, plaintiffs desire and advocate for a best practices approach, but the law does not require best practices,” she wrote. “Rather it requires constitutional practices, and that is the issue before the court.”
But the district attorneys strongly disagree. They argued in their amicus brief that “the conditions in which children are detained must account for, and not exacerbate, their trauma,” noting that many teens who end up at Shenandoah arrive with depression, conduct disorders, anxiety disorders, and PTSD.
“Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center has egregiously and repeatedly departed from accepted professional norms—including failing to provide adequate mental health treatment to children in its care with known mental health issues and using punitive measures including lengthy solitary confinement,” they wrote.
One teen, who suffered in the restraint chair after hitting his fist on a door, told the court: “I want us to be treated as human beings.”