Merkley Calls for Formal Investigation into Child Neglect at Border

Merkley Calls for Formal Investigation into Child Neglect at Border

“I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours. I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.” – Boy, age 12, held at Clint DHS facility

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley today called for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General to investigate whether DHS officials or staff broke the law in mistreatment and neglect of children who have been held in squalid and dangerous conditions at the southern border.

“If child welfare went into a foster home and found children in dirty clothes, with unchanged diapers, denied soap and toothpaste, those children would be whisked away and the adults would face possible prosecution,” said Merkley.  “The adults responsible for the rampant mistreatment of children in their custody at Clint and elsewhere need to similarly be held accountable.”

In today’s letter to DHS Acting Inspector General Jennifer Costello, Merkley wrote “to request that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) immediately initiate an investigation into causes and decision-making surrounding the mistreatment and neglect of migrant children in DHS custody and to determine whether DHS officials or staff are culpable for violations of applicable laws, regulations, policies and procedures causing or contributing to the mistreatment of migrant children in DHS custody.”

“The reasons for this request are obvious,” he continued. “Shocking conditions and staff practices exist at Custom and Border Patrol Facilities now being used to detain migrant children—in particular at Border Station Clint in El Paso, Texas.”

Reported abuses at Clint include: 

  • no staff care for tender age children under 5;
  • inadequate and substandard child care, particularly with respect to health, sanitation and nutrition;
  • no effort to reunify children with families;
  • unsuitable space for children;
  • unreasonable delay in moving children to more appropriate settings;
  • arbitrary punishment of children;
  • movement of hundreds of children out of the Clint facility in days only after its atrocious conditions were or were about to be exposed; and
  • the return of 100 children to Clint days later only after the media reported on their removal.

Merkley’s call for an investigation follows a request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) filed by advocates at the border. In the TRO, children describe the conditions at Clint as follows:

“There are little kids here who have no one to take care of them, not even a big brother or sister. Some kids are only two or three years old and they have no one to take care of them.” – Boy, age 11

“I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours. I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.” – Boy, age 12

“The day we arrived, my baby became sick. She could not open her eyes and had a fever which got much worse during the day. I asked the guard for help and he told me to ‘just deal with it.’ I asked for help again, and was ignored.” – Girl, age unknown

“I am in a room with dozens of other boys. Some have been as young as 3 or 4 years old. Some cry. Right now, there is a 12 year old who cries a lot. Others try to comfort him. One of the officers makes fun of those who cry.” Boy, age 17

“I was apprehended with my father. The immigration agents separated me from my father right away. I was very frightened and scared. I cried. I have not seen my father again… I have had a cold and cough for several days. I have not seen a doctor and I have not been given any medicine.” – Boy, age 5

“They took us away from our grandmother and now we are all alone. They have not given us to our mother. We have been here for a long time. I have to take care of my little sister. She is very sad because she misses our mother and grandmother very much… We sleep on a cement bench. There are two mats in the room, but the big kids sleep on the mats so we have to sleep on the cement bench.” Boy, age 8

Merkley’s push today follows two prior letters, one sent last week and one sent late Wednesday, pushing DHS for an immediate remediation plan to end the abuse and neglect of children being held at the border.

The full text of Merkley’s letter to the OIG is available here and follows below.

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Dear Acting Inspector General Costello,

Request for Immediate Investigation

I am writing to request that the Office of Inspector General (OIG) immediately initiate an investigation into causes and decision-making surrounding the mistreatment and neglect of migrant children in DHS custody and to determine whether DHS officials or staff are culpable for violations of applicable laws, regulations, policies and procedures causing or contributing to the mistreatment of migrant children in DHS custody. 

The reasons for this request are obvious.  Shocking conditions and staff practices exist at Customs and Border Protection Facilities now being used to detain migrant children – in particular at Border Station Clint in El Paso, Texas.  Two letters I sent to the DHS Acting Secretary concerning this subject, dated June 21, 2019 and June 26, 2019, summarize media reports and my office’s additional investigative efforts describing, among other abuses:

  • no staff care for tender age children under 5;
  • inadequate and substandard child care, particularly with respect to health, sanitation and nutrition;
  • no effort to reunify children with families;
  • unsuitable space for children;
  • unreasonable delay in moving children to more appropriate settings;
  • arbitrary punishment of children;
  • movement of hundreds of children out of the Clint facility in days only after its atrocious conditions were or were about to be exposed; and
  • the return of 100 children to Clint days later only after the media reported on their removal.

 

While the evidence remains to be gathered, I believe it’s likely that hundreds of children may have been irreparably – and needlessly -- harmed.

 

To be clear, none of this happened by chance; nor was it unforeseeable.  Specific DHS staff and officials made decisions and acted – or failed to make decisions or act – in ways that specifically caused and contributed to likely harms.  Moreover, I expect that the evidence will demonstrate that officials and staff acted knowingly or at least recklessly, in violation of the applicable laws, regulations, policies and procedures.

OIG’s mission is “[t]o provide independent oversight and promote excellence, integrity, and accountability within DHS.”  I accordingly request that OIG immediately initiate an investigation to ascertain how decisions regarding detention conditions and allocation of resources were made and who made those decisions.  I expect that an OIG investigation will identify specific individuals within DHS responsible for this, ascertain specific levels of culpability for each individual and, if warranted, refer the responsible individuals to appropriate authorities for discipline and prosecution.

Requests for Information

I am also writing to request that OIG provide, by July 26, 2019, information responsive to the following five requests directly related to the subject of this letter.

  1. Identify all DHS staff and officials for the decisions (or the failure to make decisions) that have caused or contributed to the current detention conditions described above.  These individuals should be identified by their respective agencies, titles and locations.  In addition, and with respect to each individual, identify: (a) whether they received reports, warnings or alarms concerning these conditions; (b) their response to this information, including whether the information was ignored; (c) evidence revealing their intent concerning the foregoing, including any evidence of willful or reckless intent.

 

  1. To the extent not encompassed by #1, identify all DHS staff and officials responsible for the current level of detention conditions within DHS facilities which detain children.   These individuals should be identified by their respective agencies, titles and locations.

 

  1. Identify and produce written policies and procedures regarding minimum standards for sanitation, nutrition, and safety at DHS detention facilities for children and particularly at Border Patrol facilities.

 

  1. Identify and produce written policies and procedures identifying measures to audit or oversee compliance with minimum detention standards, enforce compliance and impose sanctions or penalties for non-compliance.

 

  1. Produce data showing, from January 1, 2018 to the present: (a) the number and nature of reports received regarding any failure to comply with applicable laws, regulations, policies and procedures pertaining to the detention of children in DHS facilities; (b) the number of individuals who have not complied, identified by their respective agencies, titles and locations; (c) the nature of any discipline or other sanction imposed on each individual; and (d) the number of individuals who have been referred to agencies outside of DHS for further action.

 

I look forward to hearing from you. 

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jeff Merkley

United States Senator