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Lack of Supervision a Problem in Chicago’s Immigrant Shelters for Children

“If you don’t have enough staff to take care of the kids, that’s negligence.”
-Casa Guadalupe employee speaking to ProPublica for Records Reveal “Lax” Supervision, Sexual Activity at Chicago-Area Shelters Housing Immigrant Children

 

Following on the heels of news that an HIV-positive employee at a youth immigrant shelter in Mesa, Arizona has been charged with 11 counts of sexual misconduct against minors, comes a report of similar offenses within Chicago-area facilities.

This week, ProPublica Illinois revealed that Heartland Human Care Services, the state’s largest operator of juvenile immigrant facilities, has been cited numerous times by the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) for employee sexual misconduct and inadequate supervision that has allowed minor sexual activity and a string of runaways. The same organization has also been the focus of several police investigations of incidents involving improper supervision of children within their facilities.

After being reunited with their parents, several boys who were temporarily living at Casa Guadalupe, a Heartland  facility in Des Plaines, told their parents that they had either witnessed or been subjected to negligent care and abuse. These families then spoke to The Washington Post and The New York Times. Two young boys from Brazil describing having witnessed a 5-year-old Guatemalan boy receiving injections multiple times that made him tired. An 11-year-old boy from Guatemala reports being grabbed by an employee and dragged while playing soccer, while another boy, just 10 years old, broke his arm and says he wasn’t given medical care.

The underlying theme behind these incidents, as well as with the facility in Mesa, AZ, is a lack of oversight. What are the rules for supervision in these shelters? What are the ratio of employees to children? How often are they being visited by licensing agencies to ensure that rules are being followed? What is the punishment if they’re found in violation of these rules? Where is the protection for children separated from their parents and now living in an unknown place, many of whom already have a past history of abuse, neglect, and trauma? How can this possibly be allowed to happen, right here in our city and right under our noses?

 

Youth Immigrant Shelters Scattered Throughout Chicago
Many Chicagoans are surprised to learn that there are thousands 0f immigrant children living within facilities throughout the city. Most Chicago residents would be hard-pressed to identify the location of a shelter, but a close look by ProPublica Illinois has uncovered at least 11 right in our neighborhoods and towns. Heartland Human Services, an entity of Heartland Alliance, currently operates the largest network of youth immigrant facilities in Illinois, with 9 locations in the Chicago area. In fact, ProPublica uncovered that since Fiscal Year 2015, Heartland Human Care Services is the largest recipient of federal funding for care of immigrant children outside of Texas. At least 100 of these children within our own city are those that have been detained at the border per President Trump’s administration’s orders, something that angered several city Alderman who claim they weren’t told that shelters in their neighborhood were housing these children.

Heartland Human Care Services says that they care for 3,000 children a year in their facilities throughout Chicagoland, with 500 children being housed at a Heartland facility at any given time.

 

Loose Supervision Has Led to Sexual Misconduct, Runaways
Identifying the locations of these facilities goes against the core belief system of those housing underage immigrants. Protecting their identities and keeping them safe from kidnappers and gang members has always been claimed as a priority for shelters. But while the locations had been largely kept secret, behind closed doors, other problems are occurring.  The complaints uncovered by ProPublica have come from current and former Heartland employees, DCFS records, and police reports.

At Heartland Human Care Services’ largest facility in Bronzeville, a 27-year-old employee was fired in 2015 after her fellow employees uncovered evidence that she was having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old boy living in the shelter. DCFS launched an investigation and cited the facility.

Two girls from the same Bronzeville facility attempted to run away during a spring break 2016 visit to the Museum of Science and Industry. One girl was found quickly, but ProPublica says it is unclear if the other girl was ever found. During that visit, 10 girls were entrusted to 2 supervisors, one of whom also was responsible for driving the girls to the museum in a van. The facility was cited by DCFS for the incident, with the report noting that the girls were not assigned to specific employees, and that the facility failed to assign extra staff to assist with the outing. The Museum of Science and Industry runaways are just 2 out of at least 10 that ProPublic uncovered.

An employee from a Heartland facility in Edgewater told ProPublica that in 2014, a 4-year-old little girl walked right out of the front door and was able to wander the neighborhood alone. A kind neighbor returned her to the shelter.

Since 2014, seven children have been able to escape from the Heartland shelter in Rogers Park. Two of these children were later found in suburbs and arrested. One case especially worth noting is that of a boy who had tried to escape a few weeks prior to his second attempt. The second time he was able to jump a fence while playing outside and disappear for over an hour before staff even noticed he was gone.

At Casa Guadalupe, a 4 building Heartland Human Care Services shelter compound in Des Plaines, more reports of neglect and lack of oversight have been reported. In addition to the 3 cases reported to the Washington Post and New York Times (incidents which Heartland says they’ve investigated and found no evidence to substantiate), there is a confirmed DCFS report and citation for underage oral sex between three boys, ages 15, 11, and an unknown age. Three Heartland employees were disciplined as a result of the situation.

A Casa Guadalupe worker speaking to ProPublica on the condition of anonymity says that the facility isn’t properly staffed and that employees are overwhelmed, with just 2 adults left to supervise, cook, and do laundry more than 30 children.  The employee also told the news organization that small children go several days without being bathed, simply because there aren’t enough employees to do the work.

 

Who’s In Charge?
Officially, regulatory authority for immigrant shelters falls under a division of Health and Human Services called The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) who works in collaboration with the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS). ORR says that they often visit shelters to ensure that all is well, but leaves the licensing and discipline to DCFS. There are rules about the number of children per staff worker, but those exact numbers have never been publicly stated. In many DCFS citations against Heartland facilities, it has been noted that children were not ‘assigned’ to a specific staff worker while in certain areas of the facility, nor while on outings outside of a shelter. Not having enough employees to oversee the number of children engaged in a certain activity or outing seems to be a frequent offense noted in DCFS citations and investigations.


Levin & Perconti: Chicago Personal Injury Attorneys
Inadequate staffing and lack of supervision are common themes in the work we do. As Chicago personal injury attorneys who specialize in cases of nursing home abuse and neglect, medical malpractice, and other harmful incidents involving abuse and neglect, we repeatedly see organizations who receive millions and even billions of dollars in state and federal funding choosing to put vulnerable children, patients, and elderly nursing home residents in dangerous situations. Regardless of one’s political opinions, these shelters are housing children who go to sleep each night not knowing if they will ever see their parents again. At the very least, they deserve to be bathed, properly fed, and cared for like all children do. This means hiring enough qualified, compassionate employees as is necessary to do this meaningful work.

If you are the loved one of a child who has been mistreated while living in an immigrant housing facility in Illinois or the Chicago area, please contact the attorneys of Levin & Perconti now for a FREE consultation, toll-free at 1-877-374-1417, locally (312) 332-2872, or online.

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