Migrant Children Forcibly Drugged At US Govt Detention Centers

WASHINGTON —  Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) employees have been reportedly drugging migrant children who are being detained, Huffington Post reported.

According to legal filings, the staff has routinely drugged migrant children with psychotropics without the consent of their parents. The Trump administration has previously insisted their family separation policy, implemented over the past six weeks, is humane. A lawsuit over the Flores agreement, however, alleges mistreatment at ORR facilities. The Flores agreement is a 1997 settlement that governs in part child migrants’ detention, a settlement the White House aspires to overturn.

The most distressing allegation is the report of the drugging. A child, cited in the lawsuit, has claimed they took 16 pills daily without knowing what they were.

According to a memo filed in the lawsuit April 16, “ORR routinely administers children psychotropic drugs without lawful authorisation.”

“When youth object to taking such medications, ORR compels them. ORR neither requires nor asks for a parent’s consent before medicating a child nor does it seek lawful authority to consent in parents’ stead. Instead, ORR or facility staff sign ‘consent’ forms anointing themselves with ‘authority’ to administer psychotropic drugs to confined children.”

 At the centre of the scandal is Shiloh Residential Treatment Centre in Manvel, Texas.  Lawyers from the Flores case, however, claim the problem goes beyond just Shiloh. “It’s not specific to Shiloh,” stated Holly Cooper, one of the lawyers representing children in the Flores case.

The lawyers have claimed to witness the use of psychotropic drugs at all facilities contracted by the federal government to house unaccompanied minors. Shiloh, however, has the only documented cases of forced injections. A child, Julio Z as per court records, said Shiloh staff threw him to the ground and forcibly medicated him. He claimed he witnessed staff pry open the mouth of another child. The doctor ignored Julio when he attempted to refuse the medicine.

“They told me that if I did not take the medicine I could not leave,” Julio Z said “That the only way I could get out of Shiloh was if I took the pills.”

“Sometimes they gave me forced injections,” Rosa L, another child, claimed. “One or two staff held my arms, and the nurse gave me an injection.”

The side effects of these drugs are severe. Julio Z reportedly gained 45 pounds (20 kilogrammes) in two months. Isabella M fell repeatedly and could not walk because the medicine was too powerful, according to her mother.

Shiloh Residential Treatment Center did not comment on the issue, instead referred media to ORR. It did not respond immediately to media requests for comment.

ORR usually releases minors to sponsors–typically parents or relatives. In recent years, however, more than 200 of these children remain in federal custody.

Children can end up in residential treatment centers due to mental health or behavioural issues. Some suffer from trauma or psychiatric disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.  Psychotropics may be appropriate responses in these cases, lawyers in the Flores case wrote in a memo. They also assert that giving such powerful medication without parental consent is a violation of Texas state law. They say the act violates the Flores agreement itself and is beyond “common decency”.

Conditions of the detention may likely exacerbate mental health issues, says University of Texas Dean of Social Work, Luis Zayas. Zayas has interviewed dozens of children held at detention centres, and doubted most of the children would need medication. It would be warranted, he added, after thorough assessments and should be in consultation with the parents. He pointed to the use of psychotropics in prisons and residential treatments to control people’s behaviour.

“It is truly a sad situation that our government and the agencies that they contract with to take these children have resorted to this,” Zayas said in a statement to Huffington Post. 

Zayas has identified seven pills named in the court filings including Latuda and Divalproex. These are medications used to control mental health disorders. The injected medications remain unidentified.

Lorilei Williams is a lawyer for more than a dozen children formerly detained at Shiloh. She spoke of the children she worked with often appearing subdued and said that they suffered “immense weight gain in a very short period of time”.

“I suspected they were being medicated to make them more subdued and more controlled,” Williams told Huffington Post, “It wasn’t something that was really part of my job?to look at the medications and whether they should be on them, because as an attorney, I have no background on that.”

Williams focused on securing the children’s release, but the ORR’s system for release is opaque as testified by multiple lawyers who have represented unaccompanied minors in federal custody.

Williams submitted an affidavit detailing the case of a nine-year-old Salvaldoran migrant apprehended by Border Patrol in 2011 and sent to Shiloh by ORR. The affidavit, submitted to the judge presiding over the Flores lawsuit, spoke of the boy’s multiple psychiatric problems– including PTSD. The boy was sexually abused in El Salvador, abandoned and left on the streets before coming to the US.

His parents, who lived in Dallas, were willing to take custody of him but ORR refused to release the boy. Shiloh released him, without explanation, after a detention of a year and a half.

Lawyers like Williams cannot challenge ORR’s opaque methods because their legal counsel is funded by ORR itself, who are obligated to provide legal services to children in their custody.

The agency disburses money to the Vera Institute, which in turn subcontracts with a network of roughly three dozen legal providers.

The agency employs the Vera Institutes, who then subcontracts a network of three dozen legal providers. Nevertheless, three attorneys, including Williams have submitted affidavits to the court declaring legal aid groups had discouraged them from filing against ORR. They were blocked from filing habeas challenges against ORR to garner release for their young clients. The groups fear, however, that this may jeopardise funding for legal services for these kids.

“There was always this looming threat that if you did too much against ORR you would lose your funding, and you wouldn’t have access to the children at all,” Williams said.

Shiloh has garnered criticism in the past for allegations of serious misconduct, including forcible medication and unwarranted use of physical restraints. Williams said children housed there still complain of these problems. State regulators in 2011 closed another residential treatment center that Shiloh President Clay Dean Hill owned. The shut-down occurred after a child died while he was being restrained in a closet, as reported by a Houston Chronicle investigation in 2014.

Two other children died in centers established by Hill while restrained, as reported by a Reveal investigation. The report exposed serious records of mistreatment in contracted shelters?including sexual and physical abuse. The shelters have continued to receive funding of $ 1.15 billion to house migrant children.

The Houston Chronicle also reported the use of forced injections. ORR had exempted Shiloh from the regular requirement to document the use and administration of emergency medicine, according the Chronicle. ORR did not respond to Huffington Post’s inquiry if the exemption is still in place.

After the Houston Chronicle article came out, US Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) called for the shut-down of Shiloh.

A 2014 statement by Jackson reads, “At a minimum, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services should terminate immediately the contract awarded to Shiloh Treatment Center to provide shelter and treatment to unaccompanied children apprehended by the Border Patrol.”

Shiloh still functions, however, and houses child migrants. It has 20 unaccompanied minors in its custody as of May, reports the Texas Tribune.


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