The federal agency responsible for primary policing duties at a controversial tent city housing thousands of immigrant children in Tornillo, Texas, doesn’t have experience investigating child sex offense cases, despite evidence that such assaults are occurring within the nation’s shelter system.
The tent city, built on a patch of federal land near the border in El Paso County, has been a focal point of criticism and controversy as the number of children housed there has ballooned in recent months to about 2,800.
Late last month, as part of a larger investigation into child safety at the shelters, the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services warned that the Trump administration had waived FBI fingerprint background checks for employees at the emergency tent shelter and had hired “dangerously” few mental health counselors.
To handle any potential crimes at the tent city, the government has assigned the largely obscure Federal Protective Service.
The chief mission of the FPS is to protect federal buildings, such as the Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration, which it mostly does through its force of 13,500 private security guards. The agency also employs 1,000 law enforcement officers, who conduct site assessments, handle bomb threats and investigate any crimes, such as assaults and burglaries, that occur on federal property.
But an FPS spokesman acknowledged Thursday that the agency doesn’t have experience investigating the allegations of children who may have been abused or sexually assaulted.
“I don’t know of us investigating any cases in recent history,” said Robert Sperling, director of communications for FPS. The agency’s mission is protecting federal facilities, “there’s not often areas or instances where something like that may happen or occur.”
Experts in forensic interviewing and child abuse said children in the shelters are doubly vulnerable because they fear reporting assaults might affect their immigration cases.
Andrea Asnes, a pediatrician specializing in child abuse and an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine, said she also worried that children may be unlikely to disclose abuse at Tornillo and caregivers there may hesitate to alert law enforcement because it could reflect poorly on their vigilance.
“Then the law enforcement personnel are untrained, don’t know how to respond to these situations and may unwittingly add trauma to a situation,” Asnes said. “I think it’s fraught from start to finish.
Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children’s Alliance, called the arrangement “a Bermuda Triangle for child protection.”
In July, ProPublica reported that police nationwide have responded to hundreds of calls reporting possible sex crimes at the more than 100 shelters that serve immigrant children. Several cases have led to the arrests of staff members or teenage residents of the shelters. In September, a youth care worker, who’d gone for months without a background check, was convicted of molesting seven immigrant boys over nearly a year at an Arizona shelter run by Southwest Key.
The tent city in Tornillo, which opened in June, is operated by BCFS, a social services nonprofit based in San Antonio, and overseen by HHS.
But FPS is responsible for responding to everything from physical assaults to suicide attempts, which are not uncommon in other shelters. The officers, who are stationed at a nearby point-of-entry facility, would collect initial information on any incidents and then forward the details to the HHS inspector general’s office for review and follow-up. Sperling said his agency hasn’t written up any incident reports thus far.
Experts fear the communication logistics between FPS and HHS will undoubtedly delay important interviewing of the children that experts say should happen as soon as possible.
“The longer the chain of actions or the longer the loop of information between a child making a disclosure and an actual investigation, anything that lengthens that has a likelihood of both compromising a case and also adding to the trauma,” said Huizar, whose group trains and accredits organizations to conduct child abuse interviews.
“If we really want to ensure kids are protected — even though they are turning over cases to the [inspector general’s office] — those frontline first responders absolutely have to be trained,” she said.
The structure at Tornillo is a departure from how such crimes are handled at most of the other shelters housing immigrant children, which may involve two levels of outside scrutiny.
In nearly all of the facilities funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, potential sex crimes are reported first to the local police, who may call in a forensic interviewers who are specially trained to elicit sensitive details from children. In most cases, should the police determine an assault happened, trained social workers from the state agency overseeing children would also investigate. But unlike other shelters, the tent city in Tornillo isn’t licensed as a child care facility in Texas or subject to the state’s regulations.
The inspector general’s office didn’t respond to questions about lag time on potential investigations but said in a statement it is partnering with state child protection agencies to ensure cases are responded to quickly.
Former FPS director Gary Schenkel said the most relevant experience the agency has is providing security for emergency shelters in the wake of natural disasters. When incidents happened at those shelters, FPS officers would respond and open an investigation before passing it off to local authorities.
“We’re not staffed to do investigations like a local police department would be with detectives, crime scene evidence collection we re just not equipped for that,” Schenkel said. “We always have worked with local jurisdictions when it comes to crimes committed in and around federal facilities. We just didn’t have the equipment or personnel to do that.”
ProPublica’s review of hundreds of police reports connected to ORR-funded shelters showed that the HHS inspector general’s office was rarely involved in those child assault investigations. In 2017, it helped to investigate a youth care worker’s relationship with a teen at shelter on federal land in Homestead, Florida. The worker was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sending nude photos of herself to a 15-year-old boy who’d recently left the shelter, and asking him for sex. And the inspector general joined the Mesa, Arizona, Police Department’s investigation of the Southwest Key worker this year.
State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said the information about policing at Tornillo “illustrates that the federal government is making this up as it goes along.”
“These children,” he said, “deserve much better than what this administration is doing to them.”