AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The investigative news organization ProPublica has been trying to get a better sense of conditions migrant children are living under. Reporters Michael Grabell and Topher Sanders went through police reports and call logs for more than two-thirds of the shelters being used now. And they found cases of sexual assault, indecent exposure and unsafe conditions spanning several years.
We're joined now by Topher Sanders. And a warning - our conversation will include details of alleged abuse. Topher, thank you for joining us.
TOPHER SANDERS: Thank you for having me.
CHANG: What first prompted you and your colleague to begin looking into these records?
SANDERS: We started looking when everyone else started becoming aware of the separations and when the administration began to describe these facilities as places where children were being well cared for. It became a natural place of entry for us to start pulling records to see if that's what the records would say.
CHANG: And just to be clear, as we said, you were looking at conditions at these shelters going back years, even before these family separations were being heavily reported.
SANDERS: That's correct. We looked at five years' worth of data and reports. We wanted to do that to ensure that we got some sense of what types of activity police were having at these facilities prior to the Trump administration. And it looked like the activity is fairly consistent. The only difference that I think is important to explain is that recently we are seeing a spike in runaways where we're seeing some facilities tracking to be three times as many runaways in the 2018 year as they've seen in the previous three years.
CHANG: Wow. There was a specific case you looked into. A 15-year-old Honduran boy reported abuse at a shelter in Tucson, Ariz. Can you tell us what happened to him?
SANDERS: So he's sitting in his room, waiting for wake-up call, when a youth care worker enters his room and begins to tickle him on his stomach and his chest. That health care worker leaves, comes back several times and with each time begins to tickle him in other places, eventually placing his hand on the boy's genitals.
CHANG: How did the staff running the shelter handle those allegations?
SANDERS: They worked immediately to take that employee off the campus and then to report the allegation to authorities and get the boy in front of the police.
CHANG: Just one case of sexual abuse like that is extremely troubling. But did you find that this was a systemic problem, that there was something happening at these youth shelters that was potentially contributing to this?
SANDERS: So we got call logs from 70-plus facilities. And 125 calls to police were of a sexual nature, meaning that facilities called police because something was alleged to have happened to a child of a sexual nature, and they needed police at the facility at that moment.
CHANG: Does that number feel high to you compared to numbers across the country in shelters that house youths?
SANDERS: Yeah. You know what? We didn't assess whether or not the number was high or low as it compared to group home or foster care. I think our main assessment was to give detailed glimpse into these facilities where the government was telling them the children are being well cared for, describing them as summer camps. We wanted to see if the records would describe summer camps. And I think the information we found flies in the face of that.
CHANG: As we've reported before, these shelters are often run by private organizations that have contracts with the federal government, with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Are there particular safeguards you think need to be added to the set that's already in place?
SANDERS: The experts that we spoke with said that if there was a deficiency that they could observe, it's that there likely needs to be more advance-degreed people in these facilities who can pick up on the cues of potential abuse and pull that information out of a child if necessary.
CHANG: And because we're talking about undocumented immigrant children, does that add a layer of complexity to how to recognize potential signs of abuse happening?
SANDERS: Absolutely. Repeatedly when we spoke with psychologists, they said because these children are dealing with the added challenges associated with whether they can stay in this country and whether, if they were to report abuse, if they were to report abuses that they witnessed, whether that - any of that would jeopardize their ability to be reunified with their loved one - that puts these children at deeper jeopardy.
CHANG: Topher Sanders covers race, inequality and the justice system for ProPublica. Thank you very much.
SANDERS: Thank you for having me.
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