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Unaccompanied Children Must be Protected by the Prison Rape Elimination Act

Each year, tens of thousands of children cross the United States border—most travel alone or with strangers. Many are fleeing violence, sexual abuse or abandonment and are seeking protection and asylum here; others come to be reunited with family members living in the U.S. On their journey, these children are vulnerable to rape and assault, and an alarming number of them become victims of traffickers and smugglers. Once here, these children must be protected from further abuse and trauma.

The U.S. Border Patrol apprehends around 90,000 children at the border each year. Many undocumented minors living in the U.S. are also taken into custody. Since 2003, unaccompanied children have been transferred to the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). DHHS’s Division of Children’s Services (DCS) uses dozens of facilities across the country to detain these children. These range from lock-down shelters, used solely for undocumented minors, to beds contracted at secure juvenile detention centers.

All of DCS’s facilities confine children. Even the “shelters” DCS operates are more like those used in juvenile justice than those in the child welfare system. While many shelter staff members attempt to make the spaces child-friendly and therapeutic, they remain highly restrictive. In my visits to these shelters, I’ve found that they are often surrounded by fences, including barbed wire fencing. The DCS shelters house the children in lock-up buildings with high-security entryways, designed to keep the children in, as well as to keep members of the public out. The shelters often further restrict children’s movement through the use of locked classrooms, locked cottages and locked dormitory rooms. Phone calls are restricted to pre-approved family and to legal representatives, if the children have them. Children rarely receive or send mail. While such security measures have to do with protecting children from possible traffickers or drug cartels, the restrictions mean they are unable to report or complain about treatment. When access to the outside world is so constrained, increased monitoring and oversight are necessary to ensure the children’s DCS custodians are adequately caring for and protecting them.

For over a decade, the Women’s Refugee Commission has advocated for monitoring and better standards for unaccompanied children in immigration detention. Our 2009 report, Halfway Home: Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Custody, documented several instances of abuse, including repeated sexual assault by a staff member at one Texas shelter that went unaddressed for far too long. We also detailed the failure of measures to file and respond to complaints in many DCS facilities. Our findings revealed the gaps in DCS’s current policies for protecting children, indicating that the current standards are wholly inadequate, especially when it comes to protecting these children from sexual abuse while in DCS custody.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003 declared that all convicted or detained persons in the U.S. must be protected from rape and other forms of sexual violence, and established a framework for preventing abuse and holding all U.S. jails and other confinement facilities accountable. However, draft regulations currently under review by the Department of Justice may narrow PREA to exclude any immigration detention center, including DCS facilities where children are held.

In a recent Huffington Post article, Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s detention and asylum program, explained the crucial need to implement PREA wherever immigrant adults or minors are detained in the U.S. It is especially critical to extend this protection to unaccompanied children in DCS custody, as they have already experienced a great deal of trauma and often completely lack the resources to get help. Without parents or guardians nearby, guarantees to an attorney or access to a judge who will weigh their best interests, these children are far more vulnerable to abuse than other juvenile and adult prisoners and detainees, who are currently protected by PREA.

It is time for us to stop tolerating the sexual abuse of any child in the U.S.

As an agency that stands for the protection of child welfare, HHS should be the first to step up and welcome PREA’s standards.