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Families of migrant children claim molestation in fed care in lawsuit



The cost of separating children from their parents at the US-Mexico border is becoming substantive.

At the border between Mexico and the US, Border Patrol has been separating parents from their children. While parents are prosecuted under the “zero tolerance” policy, more than 3,000 children in recent years have been put into foster care programs, according to AP.

Parents have said their children were torn from them during breastfeeding, or never reappeared after a bath. Doctors and mental health experts have said the trauma of these events will cause irreversible and lifelong damage.

Now dozens of families are preparing to sue the US federal government for the way their children have been treated in foster care.

In 38 legal suits obtained by AP, several families are alleging their children have been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused while in federal care, and $200 million of taxpayer money is on the line.

Many more lawsuits are expected and the potential payout could be billions of dollars. The claims are made under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which allows people who suffer harm directly from federal employees to sue the government. The government has to settle within six months of filing or claimants can file federal lawsuits.

Arnold & Porter, a law firm with a pro bono program, has also filed 18 claims for nine families for $54 million, and one of its lawyers said it was the “tip of the iceberg.”

One anonymous father who had his 7-year-old son ripped from him and was then sent 2,000 miles away, asked how it was possible that his son suffered the harm.

“My son is little and couldn’t defend himself,” he said.

Migrants are seen outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, U.S., May 15, 2019.
Loren Elliot / Reuters

The boy went into a foster home for migrant children in New York and was sexually molested by other boys, according to a counselor.

In 2018, a little less than 50,000 children crossed the border alone and were housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Daily placements in foster programs, residential shelters, and detention camps reached up to 500 children.

Health and Human Services, the government agency responsible for migrant children, said it treated children in its care with dignity and respect.

Three out of four physical incidents found in legal filings happened at Cayuga Centers in New York, which is the largest care center for migrant children and has taken up to 900 children and babies at one time. In one Cayuga home, a little girl was found being forced to touch another child’s private parts and kiss, and as a result of the traumatic experience, she struggled to eat, drink or use the toilet.

Another 5-year-old girl from Guatemala is still waking up crying after being in Cayuga last year. She says to her mother, “don’t let them separate us again.” Their family has filed a $6 million lawsuit.

One 5-year-old Guatemalan girl, whose family has a $3 million injury claim, is alleging a boy grabbed her inappropriately, both in the foster home and during day time classes. When the girl was moved, she was verbally abused in her new foster home and locked away, according to the claim.

In a statement to AP, Caguya Centers said it took the safety of its children seriously and child protection was its number one priority.

Read more: The children who have been detained in appalling conditions at the border could bear scars from the experience for life, experts say

Another claim is seeking $20 million for the wrongful death of a man, after he killed himself due to having his 3-year-old son ripped from his arms.

John Escamilla, a lawyer for the suit, said the policy is making an example of families that get ripped apart on purpose to deter others.

“The people making these policies intended this level of suffering, and that’s what’s unconscionable,” Escamilla said.

While no family separation claims have been settled yet, in Massachusetts one federal lawsuit is currently being litigated, and in Connecticut a federal judge approved a $125,000 settlement in February for a Honduran mother and son who had been detained and threatened with separation during the Obama administration.

Aseem Mehta, a student at Yale Law School who worked on the case told AP it was a benchmark.

“The most important takeaway is these claims are viable, and courts will entertain them, and the Department of Homeland Security views them as meritorious; they don’t settle cases unless they think there’s liability they’re exposed to.”

Read the full report from AP here.

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