By now you’ve heard the heartbreaking stories of families separated at the border, many of whom are reuniting for the first time.
The NOW traveled to Miami to speak with one Guatemalan woman, who is filing a lawsuit, claiming a detention facility was negligent. The mother says her son was bullied and had to go to the hospital while staying at the detention facility.
A bracelet 11-year-old Geremy serves as a constant reminder of the months he spent in a children’s holding facility after he was separated from his mother, Otilia, when they crossed the border near Tijuana illegally. The family says they fled to the U.S. in order to seek asylum from domestic violence at home.
The tiny collection of threads helps the boy remember a friend he made at the center—a friend he believes is still there.
“My best friend came into the game room,” says Geremy. “He’s the one who showed me how to make this.”
But the boy’s overall memory of his time in the facility is anything but happy.
“When I first got to detention, I would cry every night and day.”
The boy and his mother were physically separated just days after they crossed the border illegally in May.
“The men arrived and said they would take him to a shelter, so they could feed him,” says Otilia, while wiping away tears. “And I told him ‘Calm down; nothing’s going to happen. God will take care of you. We’ll see each other again.’ But I said it so he would calm down.
“So, I told him goodbye when he left, and I’ll never forget that.”
The boy says he was badly, and repeatedly, bullied by older children in the facility. After one incident, Geremy was taken to the hospital.
“And another kid came in and knocked me over, and I fell into the bed into the metal bed post. And they like, they wouldn’t let me out,” says Geremy. “Then, I finally got a hand free and I touched my head, and it was full of blood.”
With financial assistance from Libre by Nexus--a company that helped bail them out—the family is suing the company that ran the facility, Heartland Alliance. The family claims the staff was negligent by not helping Geremy, and instead, telling the boy to “stop complaining.”
“Unfortunately, there are more of these stories; more will come out,” says Mike Donovan, CEO of Libre by Nexus. “And as horrible as this is, think about all those we’re not hearing about. This is a huge conscience of crisis in this country.”
Tuesday, U.S. Senator Richard Durbin wrote a letter to the executive director and vice president of Heartland Alliance, stating the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into the treatment of children at Heartland facilities. Sen. Durbin cited several instances of alleged physical and emotional abuse at Heartland’s Chicago facility.
The allegations—reported by The Washington Post —include one child who didn’t receive medical care after falling and fracturing his arm, another child who was separated from his sister and reports of several children witnessing shelter employees inject unknown substances into a child.
“Children separated from their families at our Southern boarder as a result of President Trump’s unlawful and heartless policy have already endured far more trauma than any child should ever be forced to endure,” read Sen. Durbin’s statement in part. “Every effort must be made to ensure that, once in the care of HHS grantees like Heartland, these children are compassionately cared for—both physically and emotionally.”
In a statement sent to The NOW, Heartland Alliance says the allegations “do not reflect their values,” adding they will “investigate the matter.”
Read the statement in its entirety below:
Recent allegations about our programs are disturbing as they do not reflect our values or the quality of care we strive to provide. We immediately initiated an investigation upon learning of these allegations over the weekend, and we welcome Senator Durbin’s call for an investigation of our programs from the Office of Inspector General. If any investigation reveals that a staff member placed a child in danger or did not follow protocols, we will immediately remove them from their duties. We have augmented the staff capacity and oversight at our shelters while we await the outcome of any and all investigations, and all shelter staff are receiving additional mandatory training on trauma-informed care by the end of July.
Ensuring the safety and well-being of children is our top priority. We have extensive policies, procedures, and standards of care that guide our approach to ensure the safety and well-being of all children in our care. It is not our practice to ever use injections for behavior management—our staff are well-trained in handling childcare and emotional issues. We provide a structure of learning and play at our shelters, children are given age-appropriate chores, and we nurture all children in our care. And, as we run residential shelters, we are proactive in preventing the spread of communicable diseases to keep from spreading illnesses among children.
Heartland Alliance is a 130-year-old human rights organization that has been providing shelter to unaccompanied minors for more than 20 years. We stand alongside children seeking safety in the U.S. and we fervently believe that families belong together.
Regardless of the outcome of Otilia and Geremy’s asylum case, the Guatemalan mother says she doesn’t regret her decision to come to the U.S.
She does, however, have a message for the administration.
“Stop separating children, because that’s not right,” she says. “I understand we came here illegally, but we don’t deserve to be treated like this. As mothers, we suffer a lot without our children.”
As for Geremy, he says he hopes his best friend can be released soon so that he no longer has to suffer.