“Secretive” Shelters House Immigrant Children – Are They Also a Haven for Abusers? (Part 3)
Some aldermen, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said they were skeptical of DCFS’ ability to provide oversight, given the agency’s own decades-long history of…
botched investigations and child deaths.
A ProPublica Illinois review of DCFS inspection reports found that the shelters have typically complied with state rules, though there have been some troubles over the years. Among them:
- An inspection at the Englewood shelter referenced an “incident” in July 2014 related to supervision of children. “The facility made adjustments and installed egress doors,” the report states. “There have been no further incidents.”
- At the 15-bed home in Rogers Park, a substantiated complaint cited “improper and inadequate supervision” last year, as well as fire code violations.
- At the Casa Guadalupe campus in Des Plaines, an employee lacked the training to properly discipline children. “She cannot participate in restraints without the training,” according to a 2017 report. She resigned. The facility had been cited for the same issue at least twice before.
- Soon after the facility in Bronzeville opened in 2012, a complaint alleged a staff member abused a child, according to a 2013 report. “It was investigated and unsubstantiated,” the report states.
In addition, state fire marshal inspection reports revealed violations ranging from not having enough exits in the case of a fire to doors not having adequate fire ratings.
As part of its annual inspections, DCFS also reviews a sample of children’s files to ensure they receive required health care services. In several cases, the agency noted that children were not screened for communicable diseases within 72 hours of arrival, as required. DCFS denied a request for additional reports about incidents of medical emergencies, abuse or neglect and other serious events.
Aldermen Demand Answers
ProPublica Illinois has requested police reports for incidents at every Heartland address but so far has received only reports about the shelter in Beverly.
There, a 17-year-old boy ran away in November 2016 after about a year in detention. The teen, who may have fled to join family in Houston, had not been found four months later and police suspended their investigation, records show. It’s unclear if he was ever located.
Serious allegations against Heartland, first reported by the New York Times and Washington Post, came earlier this month from two children who said they witnessed a Casa Guadalupe employee give a child an injection that made him fall asleep. Another boy said he had been dragged by two adult male shelter employees after lingering on a soccer field.
Heartland said its own investigation has turned up “no evidence” so far that confirms what the boys said about the injection.
In a separate case, a Guatemalan mother filed a lawsuit last week accusing Heartland staff of negligent supervision after her 11-year-old son was allegedly bullied and injured by an older boy while he stayed at the Des Plaines shelter.
According to the lawsuit, the boy’s complaints about bullying were ignored by staff, who told him to “stop complaining.” In late May, according to the lawsuit, the older boy pushed the 11-year-old in a bedroom, causing him to hit his head against a metal bed frame. The boy was taken to the hospital and required three staples in his head, according to the complaint.
Heartland said it is looking into the allegations but does not believe they are valid.
Heartland officials said detained children are encouraged to report any problems to staff, or use a designated phone to call DCFS or federal authorities. But the 11-year-old told ProPublica Illinois he didn’t know there was a phone available to report abuse and never saw signs indicating he could use a phone.
“Some workers treated me badly. Some treated me well,” he said.
He said older boys who’d been at the shelter for several months discouraged him and others from getting into fights with each other, or complaining about bullying, “because then the staff would have to file a report, and then you would have to stay [at the shelter] longer.”
The boy’s mother, Otilia Asig-Putul, said she spoke to her son twice by phone while they were separately detained. He’d never been hospitalized before the incident at Heartland, she said. They are now reunited and plan to live in Virginia.
“I called him. I asked him how he was. He said he had had a problem. He did not tell me he had gone to the hospital. I cried and cried without getting any answers about what was happening,” she said. “I was desperate. He told me he was fine. … They tried to calm me down. They never told me anything.”
Prompted by these allegations, Chicago aldermen voted this week to have city officials periodically inspect the facilities, saying they are concerned state and federal officials are not doing enough.
An impromptu inspection last week by city building, health and fire department inspectors found what one official described as “run-of-the-mill” problems, including porch violations, jammed doors and too much artwork covering a wall — causing a potential fire hazard.
Several aldermen said they were unaware that shelters have existed in their wards for years. Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. said Heartland never contacted his office to notify him.
“I saw those kids playing soccer,” said Brookins, who represents the 21st Ward on Chicago’s South Side. “I had no idea who they were. I had no idea that they were unaccompanied minors to this country. Absolutely I want to know where all those shelters are.”
“Trump Took Them Right Here to 98th Street?”
Heartland’s shelters often remain a mystery even to the closest neighbors, as former staff say they were told not to identify them to anybody who asked and most of the buildings lack signs. Iron fences and security cameras surround the properties. When there’s a yard, it is often enclosed with netting material that makes it difficult to see in — or out.
Allen Dunbar, 80, who lives down the block from the Beverly shelter, said he has noticed an increase in the number of children recently, mostly Latino boys, but did not know who they were.
“Trump took them right here to 98th Street?” Dunbar asked as he sat on his porch on a recent afternoon. “That’s really messed up. What’s going to happen to the kids?”
Heartland would not confirm if children separated under the zero-tolerance policy were housed at the Beverly shelter.
The state’s sex offender registry shows a convicted child sex offender lives within 500 feet of the Beverly facility. Illinois law prohibits child sex offenders from residing within 500 feet of a facility that serves children under 18, but it is unclear if offenders or authorities would know the facility houses children because Heartland does not make public its addresses. The Illinois State Police, which maintains the registry, did not return a request for comment Thursday.
Heartland declined to address that question and instead said staff closely supervise children.
The largest of Heartland’s shelters sits along a commercial strip in Bronzeville, also on the South Side. The building houses boys and girls, with the girls living on the first floor, records show. Red and yellow bunk beds are visible through tinted windows.
On a recent weekday morning, two boys playing by a third-floor window waved as a reporter stood on the sidewalk below. Three more children in an adjacent room then appeared at another window, smiled and waved.
Later that morning, about 60 children played volleyball and other games on a turf field outside. They were mostly teenage boys, though a few looked younger. Despite a driving rain, they laughed and cheered when they scored during the volleyball match.
Records show some children separated from their parents were housed here.
“I thought it was an orphanage,” said Nikki Moore, 30, who works at a restaurant across the street. “A lot of people ask and nobody ever knew what it is. It’s secretive.”
She looked toward a boy standing near the fence who looked about 9. He reminded her of her own son, she said.
“I’m torn apart seeing that boy,” she said. “It is not like you can catch one and talk to them and say anything.”
While Heartland shelters in Chicago are on busy streets, the organization’s complex of multi-story brick buildings in Des Plaines sits tucked away on green fields on Maryville Academy’s vast 116-acre campus.
An employee of a nearby church said this week she has seen children — some as young as 4 or 5 — play basketball, run along the stretches of grass and attend mass at the church.
“They look happy. They look well-fed,” she said. “Sometimes I see them and feel sad though, because they are so secluded from everyone.”
Rigo said he turned 17 inside Heartland’s facility in Beverly. He fondly remembers some aspects of the three months he spent there in the summer of 2012: the meals, cleanliness and order.
Other memories make him angry…
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Featured image via CBS Evening News/YouTube.