3 Separated Children Were Sexually Abused At Shelters, El Salvador Says

Editor's Note: This story contains a brief description of sexual abuse.

Three children from El Salvador were sexually abused at shelters in Arizona after they were separated from their families, Salvadoran officials said Thursday.

"They are sexual violations, sexual abuses, that is what this is about," Liduvina Magarin, a deputy foreign relations minister, told journalists, according to The Associated Press.

Salvadoran authorities received reports that the three minors, aged 12 to 17, were abused by workers at unnamed shelters, Magarin said.

They were physically in good health but "the psychological and emotional impact is forever."

Their families have the option of receiving help from lawyers provided by the Salvadoran government, and their children will receive psychological support when they are reunited, Magarin said, according to the AP.

The allegation follows a July ProPublica report which found that in the past five years, police responded to at least 125 calls alleging sex offenses in shelters where mainly migrant children stay.

An employee at a privately run shelter in Phoenix was arrested in July on suspicion of sexually abusing a 14-year-old migrant. He was accused of "kissing the girl multiple times and touching her breasts and crotch over her clothes," The Arizona Republic reported.

The employee has been fired, a spokesman for Southwest Key Programs, which operates shelters for migrant children, told the newspaper. "When a child tells us of inappropriate behavior, we immediately call law enforcement and start an internal investigation as appropriate," he said.

Another former employee of Southwest Key went on trial Tuesday, NPR member station KJZZ reported. Federal authorities accused Levian D. Pacheco, who is HIV-positive, of performing sex acts on two teenage boys and touching six others in 2016 and 2017. He is at least the third Southwest Key employee to be accused of such crimes in the state since 2015.

Defense attorneys said Pacheco was falsely accused and singled out for being openly gay.

In the wake of the summer's abuse allegations, the inspector general of the Office of Refugee Resettlement announced plans to visit shelters across the country to "identify vulnerabilities."

Spokeswoman Tesia Williams told NPR that the visits to shelters are now underway. "We are in the midst of conducting the site visits and anticipate releasing a report with our findings and recommendations by the end of this calendar year."

El Salvador's Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Arizona Department of Child Safety, which licenses shelters in the state, did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

Michelle Brané, director of migrant rights and justice at the Women's Refugee Commission, told NPR that there is always a risk to children's safety when they are held in large, institutional settings. Because facilities drastically expanded in a short period of time to accommodate more children, she said, there was less capacity to screen staff and provide other protections.

"Clearly the U.S. government, in this instance, separated children from their parents without any real plan for their long-term care or reunification," she said. "And in doing so, endangered thousands of children."

A federal judge ordered more than 2,500 migrant children who were taken from their parents this spring to be reunited. Hundreds remain separated, prompting criticism of the Trump administration's policy and pace of action.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also attracted questions about the quality of care at family detention centers it supervises. As NPR's Joel Rose reported, an eighteen-month-old died in Texas after being detained with her mother, who was seeking asylum from Guatemala.

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