“Secretive” Shelters House Immigrant Children – Are They Also a Haven for Abusers? (Part 4)
Other memories make him angry. Rigo — who is now 23 and asked that his full name not be used because he is living in the U.S. illegally — said some shelter employees threatened the teens who did not participate in required daily outdoor physical exercises.
“Even if you felt sick, you had to do the exercises,” said Rigo, who is from Guatemala. “The punishment was that you couldn’t go to recess that day… or they would tell you that they would notify the supervisor, and he would tell your lawyer to delay your [immigration] case.”
Another recent shelter resident also told the Washington Post that the staff threatened to delay their cases for breaking rules. Heartland told ProPublica Illinois those types of threats would be against the organization’s policies. There “is no connection between any child’s participation in programming and the status of their immigration proceedings. And staff receive ongoing training on how best to communicate with children,” Heartland wrote in an email.
Attorney Jesse Bless, who has represented families with children recently housed at Casa Guadalupe in Des Plaines, said the children shared troubling stories about their time there. He was not allowed to visit the shelter.
“I know that the children got immunizations but the children already had them,” Bless said. “…Immunizations given to children without parental consent is simply flat-out wrong … They stripped parents of their natural rights.”
He said the children were allowed to talk with their parents for 10 minutes, twice a week, while an employee stood nearby.
Bless’ clients have made some of the most serious allegations against Heartland, including that staff injected a child with a sedative. “I don’t know what happened with these children, but none of it was good,” Bless said. While acknowledging that Heartland is like the “middleman” following federal rules, he said the organization shouldn’t get a pass.
“I can sympathize with their juxtaposition of being between a rock and a hard place,” Bless said. “That doesn’t make it OK.”
Some former employees express conflicted feelings about their work at Heartland, describing being driven by the mission to help vulnerable children but also uncomfortable with an atmosphere that sometimes felt prison-like.
A former employee at the Bronzeville location said the children were well cared for within a restricted environment. He recalled taking them out for ice cream but also said the children followed strict routines and had little privacy.
“The purpose of these facilities is to remain invisible, to be no part of the community whatsoever,” said the employee, a family reunification specialist. “If we saw anybody from the community who wanted to come to the front door for anything, we had to turn them away immediately.”
Related: She Voted for Trump Because of Immigration – Two Years Later, Her Daughter-in-Law was Deported
Britt Hodgdon, 38, a social worker trained as a trauma therapist, interviewed for a job at the Bronzeville location several years ago. Among other concerns, Hodgdon said she was bothered that the sign on the building’s awning identified it as a nursing home.
“Why do these kids need to be hidden in plain sight?” Hodgdon said. “People have a right to know when children are being held in their community, perhaps against family wishes.”
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.
Featured image via CBS Evening News/YouTube.