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El Salvador says three migrant children separated from their families were sexually abused at U.S. shelters

El Salvador says three migrant children separated from their families were sexually abused at U.S. shelters
A detention facility in McAllen, Texas, holds people, including children, taken into custody by immigration authorities.

Three children from El Salvador who were separated from their families after immigrating to the U.S. were sexually abused in detention centers in Arizona, according to a Salvadoran government official.

The alleged victims — all in their teens — are still in government custody and have not been reunited with their families, Deputy Foreign Relations Minister Liduvina Magarin said.

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Magarin, speaking to reporters in El Salvador on Thursday, said U.S. officials should immediately release the children from detention “to shield them … from being abused.”

Accusations of sexual abuse at detention centers have emerged in recent weeks. Former employees at two Arizona shelters run by Southwest Key, a Texas-based nonprofit, are facing criminal charges.

In her news conference, Magarin did not name the shelter or shelters where the young immigrants are being held, and she did not detail the alleged abuse, apart from saying: “They are sexual violations, sexual abuses, that is what this is about.”

An official at the Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of caring for immigrant minors who have been separated from their families, said Friday that “without additional details, we are unable to confirm or deny these allegations took place.”

Agency spokeswoman Victoria Palmer said the government acts quickly when abuse is reported, immediately informing authorities, taking corrective action with accused employees and transferring victims to other facilities.

The agency has contracts with 100 immigrant shelters in multiple states, including several in Arizona.

In the last month, two employees at separate Arizona facilities were charged with sexually assaulting immigrant teenagers.

One of them, Fernando Magaz Negrete, 32, was charged with sexual abuse and child molestation after a witness said they saw him fondling and kissing a 14-year-old female detainee in June.

Levian D. Pacheco, 25, is charged with sexually assaulting eight teenage boys over a yearlong period ending in July of last year. His trial in federal court began this week in Phoenix.

The men were employed at two facilities operated by Southwest Key, which is based in Austin and runs 26 migrant child care shelters in three states.

Several weeks ago, a ProPublica investigation found that police had received at least 125 reports of sex offenses at shelters that mostly house migrant children over the last four years.

According to the criminal complaint against Pacheco, he was accused of entering a bathroom at a Southwest Key shelter in Mesa during the early hours of the morning while a 17-year-old boy was washing his hands. The complaint alleges Pacheco began to touch him inappropriately.

Another 17-year-old victim said Pacheco molested him beneath blankets on a bed. A third 17-year-old victim, also reported being touched sexually by Pacheco. The complaint says the acts all occurred in July 2017.

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Southwest Key officials maintain that Pacheco, who worked there for less than three years, passed all his background checks before being employed to watch children detained in the shelter and that once children came forward with allegations of abuse, shelter staff reported it to police. Southwest Key has a capacity of 5,599 in all of its shelters.

Antar Davidson, who once worked at a Southwest Key facility in Tucson, agreed the background checks were stringent — noting he had his employment delayed by months as he sought to resolve a misdemeanor shoplifting charge that appeared on his record. He said he no longer works for Southwest Key.

Davidson said the system — not just at Southwest Key — is set up in a way that can allow abusers to operate because they hold positions of power over a frightened, disoriented population of children.

“Most of the kids are under a lot of pressure. The kids are always told that things go on their court record,” Davidson said Friday. “They’re very aware and they know they have to keep their head down to get out. It’s the kind of thing where there is opportunity for abusers to work among kids who don’t come from a tradition of self-advocacy. They almost have no incentive to further complicate their situation.”

In early August, after reports of problems at shelters surfaced, Southwest Key issued a statement saying all children at their facilities have the “right to be free from abuse or neglect in this program and this country. This message is repeated to the children throughout the duration of their stay at our shelters.”

The nonprofit added that it is cooperating with authorities, fully complies with background and fingerprint requirements and trains staff to recognize and report abuse.

As for the three children from El Salvador, Magarin said the Salvadoran government has provided attorneys to the families of the alleged victims. It will be up to them to decide whether to take legal action, she said.

The government also plans to provide the alleged victims with psychological assistance, she said.

"The psychological and emotional impact is lifelong, and we are attending to that,” Magarin said.

The allegations of abuse come amid criticism that the Trump administration is taking too long to reunite separated families, despite a federal court order to do so.

While most families have been reunited, hundreds remain apart.

The mass separation of immigrant families was a result of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which called for the criminal prosecution of all people who illegally enter the United States. When parents were referred for prosecution, their children were place in shelters or in the custody of a sponsor.

Trump halted that policy in June.

5 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from the Department of Health and Human Services.

3:40 p.m.: The article was updated with comments from Antar Davidson and details on other alleged incidents of sexual abuse.

The article was originally published at 9:05 a.m.

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