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“Hidden in Plain Sight”: Hundreds of Immigrant Children and Teens Housed in Opaque Network of Chicago-Area Shelters

Documents and interviews reveal allegations of abuse, threats and inappropriate relationships.

Residents play volleyball and stand in the yard at a shelter in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. More than 100 immigrant children and teens separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border, as well as hundreds of unaccompanied minors, have been held in Chicago-area shelters this year. (Joshua Lott for ProPublica Illinois)

One shelter, in Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, still bears an awning with the name of a nursing home, though no senior citizens have lived there in years.

Another is a two-story, brick home next to a storefront Zumba studio in Rogers Park.

At a third, a converted convent on a busy residential street in Beverly, neighbors sometimes glimpse teenage boys playing volleyball and soccer in a gated yard but have no idea who they are.

These buildings and others in Illinois anonymously house migrant children detained after crossing the border to the United States — some who came on their own and, more recently, those forcibly separated from their parents.

As the Trump administration has come under fire in recent weeks for its zero tolerance immigration crackdown, much attention has focused on the children and conditions at shelters along the country’s southern border and in major metropolitan areas on the coasts.

But here in Illinois, an opaque web of 11 shelters houses thousands of children each year, including more than 100 in recent months who were separated from their parents. By Thursday, in a rush to meet a court-ordered deadline, all but 17 of those children had been reunited with their families, according to the organizations that house them.

ProPublica Illinois reporters identified the shelter locations in Chicago and the suburbs and then obtained police reports, state inspection records and other documents, as well as conducted interviews with children, parents, lawyers and current and former employees to learn more about where the children are detained and the care they receive.

The nonprofit that runs most of the facilities, Heartland Human Care Services, is part of Heartland Alliance, a large, Chicago-based anti-poverty institution that works on health services, homelessness prevention and other social issues and is generally well-regarded. But troubling incidents have also occurred behind the iron fences that surround many of these shelters, our investigation found.

Heartland has received little public scrutiny until now, although, of the more than 100 federally contracted sites around the country, it has received the fourth-highest amount of federal dollars for housing unaccompanied minors since fiscal year 2015 — more money than any other organization outside Texas.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services cited Heartland for a supervision violation after an employee was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor at the International Children’s Crisis Center in Bronzeville in 2015. The state agency concluded the inappropriate relationship allegation was unfounded and Heartland fired the employee, records show.

Heartland received another supervision citation in 2016 after DCFS found that children had engaged in sexual activity at its facility in Des Plaines, called Specialized Care for Immigrant Children or Casa Guadalupe. In addition, at least five children have run away from Heartland shelters between 2015 and 2017, according to reports from DCFS and the police.

There also has been at least one allegation of battery, though DCFS said the allegation could not be corroborated. Requests are still pending for other records that could shed more light on conditions.

Heartland declined to comment on any specific incidents but said it takes immediate action if “policies, practices and/or standards of care are not being followed.”

In recent weeks, Heartland was named in a lawsuit alleging negligence after an 11-year-old boy was injured by an older boy at Casa Guadalupe. It also was sued at least twice last month by lawyers working to reunite parents with their children. After recent media reports detailed several children’s serious allegations of mistreatment, including claims that staff injected a young boy with a sedative, local, state and federal authorities began asking questions of an agency unaccustomed to public criticism.

DCFS last week opened two investigations. Chicago aldermen, some angry they weren’t told shelters housing separated children were in their wards, passed an ordinance Wednesday that requires Heartland to disclose to city officials the addresses of its facilities and other information about them.

Five of the shelters are spread throughout Chicago. Two are in Rogers Park, the brick home called the International Youth Center that can house 15 children, and a larger site that can hold 70 children, known as the International Children’s Center. About 40 children can live in the former convent in Beverly, also called the International Children’s Center. A home in Englewood, named Casa Heartland at Princeton, has space for 19 children, while the largest site — the converted nursing home in Bronzeville — can hold as many as 250.

Immigrant children who crossed the border alone or were separated from their parents are held in nondescript buildings in Chicago neighborhoods, including these in Rogers Park, Beverly and Englewood. (Joshua Lott for ProPublica Illinois)

In addition to the Chicago sites, Heartland houses up to 116 children at its four cottages in Des Plaines on the campus of Maryville Academy, a Catholic child welfare agency.

Maryville also operates two of its own shelters, in Des Plaines and Bartlett, where 55 children are currently placed. Four children separated from their families were housed in the Maryville shelters, but they have since been reunited with their families.

Heartland has received more than $180 million in federal funds since the 2013 fiscal year for services for unaccompanied minors. The federal government has paid Heartland about $40 million so far this fiscal year, roughly the same amount awarded for all of last year, which was up from $25 million in 2016. Heartland attributed the jump to a change in the federal government’s staffing requirements, among other factors.

To hear the social service agency describe it, living at one of its shelters can be like a combination of school, day care and summer camp. Children spend six hours a day in class, play games and sports, and go on field trips to the zoo, museums and the beach, Heartland officials said. Most children will stay for a few weeks or months, until they are united with a family member or sponsor. Others may live at a shelter for more than a year.

But the facilities are, in effect, detention centers. Children are not free to leave. Most of the Chicago locations have little outdoor space. Former employees describe feeling at times like prison guards, as the children follow strict schedules and use bathrooms without locks.

Heartland answered many of ProPublica Illinois’ questions about its shelters but also said the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that takes custody of unaccompanied minors, has restricted how much information it can provide.

“But we also stand with children who are alone or cross the border alone,” David Sinski, the executive director of Heartland Human Care Services, said in an interview. “I’m sure you can appreciate as a human rights organization … there are conversations all the time about how to ensure we stay focused on our mission of human rights and carrying out the work for vulnerable children.”

Heartland officials acknowledge that their mission has become more complicated this summer as they cared for children sent to them as part of a policy of separation they oppose because it causes “additional trauma” to already troubled families.

“We believe children and families seeking safety and refuge here in the U.S. should be treated with dignity,” Heartland said in a written statement. “We will continue to do all that it takes to provide for their safety and well-being while we work to reunify them with their parents.”

At a City Council hearing earlier this week, Sinski and an attorney for the organization said repeatedly that the federal government prohibited them from providing even the most basic information about how many children the agency is currently sheltering or how much money it receives to do the work.

“To have a partner who so willingly works against the very nature of what this city stands for, of being a sanctuary city, that cares for its children and is trying to do the right thing, I think it’s outrageous and disgusting,” Ald. Raymond Lopez, of the 15th Ward on Chicago’s Southwest Side, told Heartland officials during the hearing. “While your original goals may have been good, where you have wound up has put you in a bad place.”

At another meeting, Ald. Ameya Pawar, of the 47th Ward on the city’s North Side, argued that Heartland was taking a public beating as a stand-in for the Trump administration.

“These children should have never been separated. They shouldn’t be in Chicago. They should be with their parents,” said Pawar, who worked on refugee resettlement at Heartland as an intern nine years ago. “But they’re here and if any agency should be taking care of them, it should be Heartland Alliance. They do God’s work.”

New Scrutiny

The Trump administration’s controversial policy of removing children from their parents when they were caught illegally crossing into the United States thrust into the national spotlight a decades-old system designed with another set of children in mind.

Heartland Alliance began providing shelter for unaccompanied minors coming to the United States without their parents in 1995. The shelters operate under a contract with ORR but Heartland declined to provide its agreement, saying it was not allowed to do so. ORR has not yet responded to a request for those records or to questions about how it monitors facilities for unaccompanied minors. According to Heartland, the federal agency conducts weekly meetings with Heartland staffers to discuss the children, daylong visits to each site at least once a month and a weeklong visit at least once every two years.

Shelter locations are supposed to be kept secret, ostensibly to protect children who may be vulnerable to traffickers, smugglers or gangs. This also has meant the shelters operate with little public attention, raising questions about who, if anyone, is providing sufficient oversight.

DCFS’ oversight function is primarily technical, checking for compliance with minimum program standards during scheduled licensing inspections once a year.

“We’re very clear about what our role is,” said Neil Skene, DCFS special assistant to the director. “We are a state licensing agency. It’s a federal program. These are federal kids.”

The federal government, Skene said, holds the “first responsibility for the safety and well-being of these children.”

DCFS is charged with investigating allegations of abuse or neglect against any child in the state, but that typically occurs only after a call is made to report suspected harm.

Some aldermen, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said they were skeptical of DCFS’ ability to provide oversight, given the agency’s own decades-long history of botched investigations and child deaths.

A ProPublica Illinois review of DCFS inspection reports found that the shelters have typically complied with state rules, though there have been some troubles over the years. Among them:

  • An inspection at the Englewood shelter referenced an “incident” in July 2014 related to supervision of children. “The facility made adjustments and installed egress doors,” the report states. “There have been no further incidents.”
  • At the 15-bed home in Rogers Park, a substantiated complaint cited “improper and inadequate supervision” last year, as well as fire code violations.
  • At the Casa Guadalupe campus in Des Plaines, an employee lacked the training to properly discipline children. “She cannot participate in restraints without the training,” according to a 2017 report. She resigned. The facility had been cited for the same issue at least twice before.
  • Soon after the facility in Bronzeville opened in 2012, a complaint alleged a staff member abused a child, according to a 2013 report. “It was investigated and unsubstantiated,” the report states.

In addition, state fire marshal inspection reports revealed violations ranging from not having enough exits in the case of a fire to doors not having adequate fire ratings.

As part of its annual inspections, DCFS also reviews a sample of children’s files to ensure they receive required health care services. In several cases, the agency noted that children were not screened for communicable diseases within 72 hours of arrival, as required. DCFS denied a request for additional reports about incidents of medical emergencies, abuse or neglect and other serious events.

Aldermen Demand Answers

ProPublica Illinois has requested police reports for incidents at every Heartland address but so far has received only reports about the shelter in Beverly.

There, a 17-year-old boy ran away in November 2016 after about a year in detention. The teen, who may have fled to join family in Houston, had not been found four months later and police suspended their investigation, records show. It’s unclear if he was ever located.

Serious allegations against Heartland, first reported by the New York Times and Washington Post, came earlier this month from two children who said they witnessed a Casa Guadalupe employee give a child an injection that made him fall asleep. Another boy said he had been dragged by two adult male shelter employees after lingering on a soccer field.

Heartland said its own investigation has turned up “no evidence” so far that confirms what the boys said about the injection.

In a separate case, a Guatemalan mother filed a lawsuit last week accusing Heartland staff of negligent supervision after her 11-year-old son was allegedly bullied and injured by an older boy while he stayed at the Des Plaines shelter.

According to the lawsuit, the boy’s complaints about bullying were ignored by staff, who told him to “stop complaining.” In late May, according to the lawsuit, the older boy pushed the 11-year-old in a bedroom, causing him to hit his head against a metal bed frame. The boy was taken to the hospital and required three staples in his head, according to the complaint.

Heartland said it is looking into the allegations but does not believe they are valid.

Heartland officials said detained children are encouraged to report any problems to staff, or use a designated phone to call DCFS or federal authorities. But the 11-year-old told ProPublica Illinois he didn’t know there was a phone available to report abuse and never saw signs indicating he could use a phone.

“Some workers treated me badly. Some treated me well,” he said.

He said older boys who’d been at the shelter for several months discouraged him and others from getting into fights with each other, or complaining about bullying, “because then the staff would have to file a report, and then you would have to stay [at the shelter] longer.”

The boy’s mother, Otilia Asig-Putul, said she spoke to her son twice by phone while they were separately detained. He’d never been hospitalized before the incident at Heartland, she said. They are now reunited and plan to live in Virginia.

“I called him. I asked him how he was. He said he had had a problem. He did not tell me he had gone to the hospital. I cried and cried without getting any answers about what was happening,” she said. “I was desperate. He told me he was fine. … They tried to calm me down. They never told me anything.”

Prompted by these allegations, Chicago aldermen voted this week to have city officials periodically inspect the facilities, saying they are concerned state and federal officials are not doing enough.

An impromptu inspection last week by city building, health and fire department inspectors found what one official described as “run-of-the-mill” problems, including porch violations, jammed doors and too much artwork covering a wall — causing a potential fire hazard.

Several aldermen said they were unaware that shelters have existed in their wards for years. Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. said Heartland never contacted his office to notify him.

“I saw those kids playing soccer,” said Brookins, who represents the 21st Ward on Chicago’s South Side. “I had no idea who they were. I had no idea that they were unaccompanied minors to this country. Absolutely I want to know where all those shelters are.”

“Trump Took Them Right Here to 98th Street?”

Heartland’s shelters often remain a mystery even to the closest neighbors, as former staff say they were told not to identify them to anybody who asked and most of the buildings lack signs. Iron fences and security cameras surround the properties. When there’s a yard, it is often enclosed with netting material that makes it difficult to see in — or out.

Allen Dunbar, 80, who lives down the block from the Beverly shelter, said he has noticed an increase in the number of children recently, mostly Latino boys, but did not know who they were.

“Trump took them right here to 98th Street?” Dunbar asked as he sat on his porch on a recent afternoon. “That’s really messed up. What’s going to happen to the kids?”

Heartland would not confirm if children separated under the zero-tolerance policy were housed at the Beverly shelter.

The state’s sex offender registry shows a convicted child sex offender lives within 500 feet of the Beverly facility. Illinois law prohibits child sex offenders from residing within 500 feet of a facility that serves children under 18, but it is unclear if offenders or authorities would know the facility houses children because Heartland does not make public its addresses. The Illinois State Police, which maintains the registry, did not return a request for comment Thursday.

Heartland declined to address that question and instead said staff closely supervise children.

A volleyball court sits outside a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Chicago. (Joshua Lott for ProPublica Illinois)

The largest of Heartland’s shelters sits along a commercial strip in Bronzeville, also on the South Side. The building houses boys and girls, with the girls living on the first floor, records show. Red and yellow bunk beds are visible through tinted windows.

On a recent weekday morning, two boys playing by a third-floor window waved as a reporter stood on the sidewalk below. Three more children in an adjacent room then appeared at another window, smiled and waved.

Later that morning, about 60 children played volleyball and other games on a turf field outside. They were mostly teenage boys, though a few looked younger. Despite a driving rain, they laughed and cheered when they scored during the volleyball match.

Records show some children separated from their parents were housed here.

“I thought it was an orphanage,” said Nikki Moore, 30, who works at a restaurant across the street. “A lot of people ask and nobody ever knew what it is. It’s secretive.”

She looked toward a boy standing near the fence who looked about 9. He reminded her of her own son, she said.

“I’m torn apart seeing that boy,” she said. “It is not like you can catch one and talk to them and say anything.”

While Heartland shelters in Chicago are on busy streets, the organization’s complex of multi-story brick buildings in Des Plaines sits tucked away on green fields on Maryville Academy’s vast 116-acre campus.

An employee of a nearby church said this week she has seen children — some as young as 4 or 5 — play basketball, run along the stretches of grass and attend mass at the church.

“They look happy. They look well-fed,” she said. “Sometimes I see them and feel sad though, because they are so secluded from everyone.”

Troubling Stories

Rigo said he turned 17 inside Heartland’s facility in Beverly. He fondly remembers some aspects of the three months he spent there in the summer of 2012: the meals, cleanliness and order.

Other memories make him angry. Rigo — who is now 23 and asked that his full name not be used because he is living in the U.S. illegally — said some shelter employees threatened the teens who did not participate in required daily outdoor physical exercises.

“Even if you felt sick, you had to do the exercises,” said Rigo, who is from Guatemala. “The punishment was that you couldn’t go to recess that day… or they would tell you that they would notify the supervisor, and he would tell your lawyer to delay your [immigration] case.”

Another recent shelter resident also told the Washington Post that the staff threatened to delay their cases for breaking rules. Heartland told ProPublica Illinois those types of threats would be against the organization’s policies. There “is no connection between any child’s participation in programming and the status of their immigration proceedings. And staff receive ongoing training on how best to communicate with children,” Heartland wrote in an email.

Attorney Jesse Bless, who has represented families with children recently housed at Casa Guadalupe in Des Plaines, said the children shared troubling stories about their time there. He was not allowed to visit the shelter.

“I know that the children got immunizations but the children already had them,” Bless said. “…Immunizations given to children without parental consent is simply flat-out wrong … They stripped parents of their natural rights.”

He said the children were allowed to talk with their parents for 10 minutes, twice a week, while an employee stood nearby.

Bless’ clients have made some of the most serious allegations against Heartland, including that staff injected a child with a sedative. “I don’t know what happened with these children, but none of it was good,” Bless said. While acknowledging that Heartland is like the “middleman” following federal rules, he said the organization shouldn’t get a pass.

“I can sympathize with their juxtaposition of being between a rock and a hard place,” Bless said. “That doesn’t make it OK.”

Some former employees express conflicted feelings about their work at Heartland, describing being driven by the mission to help vulnerable children but also uncomfortable with an atmosphere that sometimes felt prison-like.

A former employee at the Bronzeville location said the children were well cared for within a restricted environment. He recalled taking them out for ice cream but also said the children followed strict routines and had little privacy.

“The purpose of these facilities is to remain invisible, to be no part of the community whatsoever,” said the employee, a family reunification specialist. “If we saw anybody from the community who wanted to come to the front door for anything, we had to turn them away immediately.”

Britt Hodgdon, 38, a social worker trained as a trauma therapist, interviewed for a job at the Bronzeville location several years ago. Among other concerns, Hodgdon said she was bothered that the sign on the building’s awning identified it as a nursing home.

“Why do these kids need to be hidden in plain sight?” Hodgdon said. “People have a right to know when children are being held in their community, perhaps against family wishes.”

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