A federal court judge in California on Monday ordered the US government to make immediate changes to how it treats undocumented immigrant children it has placed in secure facilities.
The court's orders ranged from very specific demands, such as to get informed consent or a court order before giving children psychotropic medications at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas, to sweeping orders requiring the government to stop imposing conditions that have led to months of delays before it releases minors to parents or relatives.
CNN previously reported on the wide-ranging abuses at Shiloh and other facilities described by children in sworn declaration in the case that led to Monday's order. These included cases of children being forcibly medicated, assaulted, and restrained for long periods of time, among other allegations.
In her ruling, US District Court Judge Dolly Gee agreed that the government had violated terms of a high-profile settlement, reached in 1997, that dictates how children are treated within the system run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
She ordered the government to transfer out of Shiloh all children except those a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist determines pose a danger to themselves or others.
'Informed written consent' required before giving children drugs
Gee also ordered the government to get "informed written consent" from a parent, family member or sponsor, or a court order, before giving children at Shiloh psychotropic drugs. Shiloh staff had admitted signing the consent forms themselves before consistently drugging children, Gee noted in her ruling.
US Department of Justice declined to comment on the orders. Officials at Shiloh, who previously have referred questions to ORR, could not be reached for comment Monday. Shiloh's website includes a statement, predating the court order, that the center has been visited, audited or investigated by ORR, various Texas state agencies, and the consulates of Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador and that "All of the widely distributed allegations about Shiloh were found to be without merit."
ORR did not immediately reply to requests for comment Monday. An ORR spokesperson previously said the agency can't comment on ongoing litigation. ORR officials have said that its shelters are run by organizations that meet state licensing standards and are staffed by people who are well-equipped to meet the needs of children in their care.
Ruling called a 'huge victory'
Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis, one of the groups suing the government over conditions in children's detention facilities, called Gee's ruling "a huge victory."
Cooper said the judge's findings made it clear that ORR frequently has pushed children into higher-security facilities unnecessarily. These include staff-secure facilities, which have fenced perimeters and more staff than standard shelters; secure facilities, which are akin to juvenile correction centers; and residential treatment centers, which are secure residential facilities providing psychiatric care.
"Once a child is pushed up into a higher security facility, the actual conditions of confinement deteriorate significantly, and that can have a significant impact on a child's well-being," she said.
Carlos Holguin, general counsel at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, which participated in the suit, said the government was sending children to secure facilities who posed no danger to themselves or others.
"We will likely send in a team of independent psychiatrists and try to make our own determination of which kids are dangerous and which are not," Holguin said
The court on Monday also ordered the Office of Refugee Resettlement:
- To give all minors sent to higher security facilities, including residential treatment centers, written notice in a language they can understand, "within a reasonable time," of why they were placed there. Judge Gee said that the three or four months many youths went without being so informed "amounts to a failure to provide written notice within a reasonable time."
- To drop a blanket policy that had delayed the release of many children by months by requiring that sponsors line up a wide array of services, such as counseling, in advance, instead of organizing some of those services after release.
- To place in less-restrictive settings minors who merely were believed to have been involved in gangs absent probable cause to believe they committed a specific crime.
- To stop using security measures at Shiloh "that are not necessary for the protection of minors or others" such as denying them access to drinking water; and to let minors there have access to private phone calls.
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