Even before the Trump administration took the dramatic and punitive step of separating migrant children from their parents in April, some 10,000 undocumented kids were already languishing in federal custody for an average of eight months. They’re housed in shelters scattered around the country, operated by dozens of private companies funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Many of the shelters have poor track records — documented histories of neglect, sexual and physical abuse — but one in particular distinguished itself in the minds of the children who were detained there: the Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas.
On Monday, a federal judge ordered the government to remove most of the children from Shiloh, and told the Trump administration the shelters must end the practice of prescribing powerful psychotropic drugs without a court order or a parent’s permission.
Kids who stayed at Shiloh told their lawyers and family members they were heavily drugged, in some cases held down and injected, and abused by staff members. (One of the doctors prescribing those drugs, Dr. Javier Ruíz-Nazario, lost his certification years before, the Center for Investigative Reporting recently discovered.)
“I took nine pills in the morning and seven in the evening. I don’t know what medications I was taking; no one ever told me,” one child who was detained at Shiloh told lawyers. Those pills were in addition to injections staff members also allegedly used to control behavior. “They would come and give me a shot to tranquilize me… I would start to feel sleepy and heavy, and like I didn’t have any strength. I would sleep for three to four hours and then wake up and slowly start to feel my strength return.”
That child — who has bounced between six shelters in three states since arriving from Mexico in 2014 — was just one of a number of children who recounted horror stories about Shiloh to the lawyers responsible for ensuring that the government is providing a humane environment for the kids in its custody.
Judge Dolly Gee’s decision on Monday represented only a partial victory for advocates: She ruled children believed to pose a “risk of harm” to themselves or others could remain at Shiloh. Lawyers advocating for the children had raised concerns that another treatment center in the same town and with the same owner lost its license in 2011 after a fourth child in its custody died from asphyxiation due to physical restraints. (Preceding the shutdown of Daystar Treatment Center, it was reported that children were routinely “hog-tied,” there were complaints of sexual abuse and reports of staff forcing developmentally disabled girls to fight for snacks.)
The question of which children pose a “risk,” who decides and how they arrive at that decision is something advocates are deeply concerned about. Today, government contractors can unilaterally classify a child a risk, and once a child is labeled a risk, he or she can be sent to a more restrictive facility — one that’s much harder to get released from.
ORR divides shelters into three categories: a shelter, the more restrictive “staff secure” facility, and the most restrictive — equivalent to a juvenile detention center — called “secure care.” Until recently, the only way a child could be released after being “stepped up” into a staff secure or secure facility was with the express permission of the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement himself, a man named Scott Lloyd.
More than 750 kids were impacted by this strict Lloyd policy in the past year. In that time only 12 percent were approved for release to a sponsor, compared to a 90 percent release rate before, according to the New York Civil Liberties, which secured an injunction in June, temporarily halting the policy.
According to Leecia Welch of the National Center for Youth Law, children are often not even aware that someone has decided they’re a risk and can therefore be shifted to one of the more secure facilities. “Awakened in the middle of the night, not told where you’re going, put on a plane, shackled for six hours and find yourself in a jail – that’s the sort of thing that could happen and did happen to a young person that I spoke to a month ago,” Welch recently told Rolling Stone.
“ORR is forcing youth into jail-like settings, and by that I mean that they are literally locked in small cells with concrete walls and they only get an hour of sunshine, if that, a day,” Welch said. “They’re getting locked in these cells without any explanation of what the charge is or an opportunity to explain their side of the story.”