Almost 5,000 complaints of alleged sexual abuse and harassment of migrant children in US custody have been made since October 2015, according to government documents released last week. The allegations range from adult staff members having relationships with minors to the showing of pornographic videos to forcible touching. Though the reports go back four years, the highest number of sexual abuse and harassment occurred since President Trump took office. Indeed, there has been a spike in these complaints, most of which have taken place since last spring’s family separation policy took effect, which resulted in more than 2,700 children being separated from their parents.
Representative Ted Deutch made the data about the complaints public and addressed the allegations at a congressional hearing on the Trump administration's policy of separating migrant families. Allegations include complaints that adult staff members had harassed and assaulted children, including fondling and kissing minors, watching them as they showered, as well as cases of rape. They also included cases of suspected abuse of children by other minors, which made up the majority of the allegations deemed most serious. According to the HHS documents released, the total number of sexual abuse complaints in 2018 was 1,261, an increase of 192 compared to 2017. The number of reported sexual abuse incidents involving staff against migrant children increased in 2018, with a total of 12 complaints filed in July compared with four in February. At the hearing, Deutch called the government's 135 migrant shelters "an unsafe environment."
Jonathan White, the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps commander and a testifying official who has overseen child migrant detention matters at HHS, argued that the complaints filed are not directed at HHS staff and that when a sexual assault is reported, it is fully investigated. According to White, reports deemed legitimate are sent to the Department of Justice for prosecution. While expressing concern about the allegations, he claimed that “the vast majority of allegations prove to be unfounded when they are investigated by state law enforcement and federal law enforcement and the state licensure authorities to whom we refer them.”
In addition to bringing to light these allegations, members of the now Democratic-controlled House of Representatives are still seeking answers on the family separation policy that has affected thousands of minors and their families. The House Oversight and Reform Committee issued the first subpoenas last week after failing to receive answers on separated migrant families. "When our own government rips vulnerable children, toddlers, and even infants from the arms of their mothers and fathers with no plan to reunite them, that is government-sponsored child abuse," Representative Elijah Cummings, the committee chairman, said. "It is our job to step in and protect those children. Further delay is not an option."