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Two Guatemalan Families Say Child Separation Policy Led to Sexual Abuse

Cayuga Centers office in East Harlem.
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Cayuga Centers office in East Harlem. Beth Fertig/WNYC

Two Guatemalan fathers and their children are seeking monetary damages from the U.S. government over its family separation policy at the border last year, claiming the children suffered sexual abuse after they were brought to foster homes in New York.

They also claim the government violated their constitutional rights, including their right to family integrity, and failed in its basic duties not to harm those in its custody.

The administrative claims were filed Thursday on behalf of each parent and child by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the law firm Covington & Burling. If no settlement is reached within six months, attorney Michelle Lapointe of the Southern Poverty Law Center said a suit will be filed in federal court.

The parents and children are referred to only by their initials. In one case, a father known as A.P.F. is described as arriving at the Texas border with his seven-year old son O.P.D. last May. It describes the father seeking better medical care for his son following heart surgery.

The father and son were initially kept together in a processing center run by Customs and Border Protection, but the boy was then sent to a foster home run by Cayuga Centers in New York City — which is under contract with the federal government.

Lapointe said O.P.D. stayed in a room at night with other children. “While he was there he suffered abuse in the form of inappropriate touching of a sexual nature” from these other children, she claimed.

Cayuga Centers declined to comment on the allegations. The non-profit has a contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to take unaccompanied minors who cross the border. Hundreds of children were placed in its care last year after the Trump Administration’s Zero Tolerance Policy resulted in separating thousands of parents and children. A federal judge in California then ordered the government to reunify the families.

The claim described how O.P.D.’s allegation of abuse was almost investigated by the NYPD, after a counselor under contract with the federal government met with the boy. It said the NYPD was scheduled to interview O.P.D. on July 26, and instructed that he was not to leave the state before then. But the day before, the government transported O.P.D. to the Port Isabel Detention Facility in Texas in order to reunite him with his father.

The other claim involves a father and daughter known as J.V.S. and H.Y. When the five year-old girl was separated from her father, in Arizona, she was sent to Lutheran Social Services in New York where Lapointe said she was inappropriately touched by another child. “She was also subjected to verbal abuse by adults in the foster home,” Lapointe described, saying it caused enormous distress on top of being separated from her father.

Lutheran Social Services did not respond to a request for comment.

Lapointe said both sets of parents and children suffered extreme emotional distress from the separation. Each father spent weeks in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention not knowing where their child was located. “The harm that they suffered as a result of the separation was deep and severe,” she said, “causing the children anxiety and deep sadness and their parents as well, to this day.”

In a press release, O.P.D.’s father said, “When I learned that he was molested by other boys, I was sick with grief. No one deserves this cruelty.”

They are now living in California, according to Lapointe, while the father and daughter in the other claim are now in Massachusetts. Both parents are waiting for immigration courts to decide if they qualify for asylum.

Lapointe would not say how much money the parents are seeking. The government has not responded to a request for comment.

“It is both obvious and well documented that tearing small children away from their parents causes enormous short- and long-term pain and suffering,” said Matt Schlesinger, a partner at Covington & Burling. “Some of that damage can never be undone, and we seek compensation from responsible parties to mitigate these harms and send a message that this form of cruelty is the exception and not the norm in this country.”

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