Unaccompanied Minors Allege Beatings at Immigrant Detention Center

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The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is busy determining what to do with all the kids from the FLDS, but meanwhile, another group of children under TDFPS care is alleging abuse.

Eight immigrant youths from the Hector Garza Treatment Center, a facility for unaccompanied minors, have filed a lawsuit against a number of agencies, including the Houston-based Cornell Companies, a private company that runs the treatment center.

The allegations involve beatings from guards at the Garza center, which is located in San Antonio. On several occasions, the children were hospitalized, according to the lawsuit. Four San Antonio police officers were also named in the complaint for handcuffing and assaulting several teenagers after responding to a fight at Garza.

"Some of these incidents happened three months ago, and it was never reported as it should have been to Child Protective Services," says Susan Watson, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is representing several children in the lawsuit. "The kids have been afraid to talk to anybody about this, because as they reported it, it seems to target them for 'special' treatment."

Cornell Companies is licensed by the TDFPS to provide care for children, and as the Salt Lake Tribune discovered, Texas child care facilities don't have a stellar record. Earlier this year, lawyers from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid filed a separate lawsuit against another TDFPS facility, Texas Sheltered Care in Nixon, alleging sexual abuse by guards and neglect by TDFPS officials.

"You try to understand that every organization has one rogue cop, or one bad apple, but the breadth of involvement [at Garza] is worse than it was at Nixon," Watson says.

Cornell Companies entered in a contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement in September to use the Garza facility to house and treat immigrant minors who are determined to be mentally ill. According to Watson, most of the children traveling across the border suffer from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"One of my kids…his father was either killed by MS-13 in El Salvador, and a year later, his mother was killed before his own eyes, and he was macheted and ice-picked and left for dead," Watson says. "I would expect a kid of nine who has gone through that to have some level of depression. But as far as I can tell, there was no treatment, no meaningful treatment, there at the facility."

Charles Seigel, a spokesman for Cornell Companies, says the company, along with TDFPS, have investigated any claims of abuse, even prior to the lawsuit, and found no evidence of wrongdoing.

"If there is any evidence of it, we want to know about it, but we don't see any," Seigel says. "Our specialty is troubled children. We're very proud of the staff there, and we were very hurt about these charges.

Several of the teens from the Garza facility have been moved to group homes in Houston and are seeking U.S. citizenship through asylum.

It could be a year before the case goes to trial, Watson says, but you can read the entire complaint here. -- Paul Knight

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