Virginia review finds no evidence of abuse at center holding immigrant children

The Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice determined there is no evidence of abuse or neglect at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Augusta County, according to a report released Monday.

Gov. Ralph Northam asked the state to look into the allegations in June after a federal class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of immigrant teens held there.

The lawsuit includes half a dozen sworn statements from teens who were held at the center and claimed to have been abused in 2016. The teenage detainees relayed stories of being beaten, left in solitary confinement and being left naked and shivering.

“I take these allegations very seriously and directed members of my administration to immediately look into these claims of abuse and mistreatment,” Northam said in a statement.

The state referred two cases to Child Protective Services, which determined the incidents didn’t meet the legal threshold for abuse or neglect.

The center houses some immigrant children who were alone when they were caught crossing the border illegally or surrendered to immigration authorities once arriving at the border. Three filed a federal class-action lawsuit last year alleging abuse by guards.

Some were sent to the Verona detention center after authorities accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13, the Associated Press reported, though a program director at the center told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that there was little evidence of gang membership for some of those children.

“We do a disservice to unaccompanied children when they are mislabeled as gang-involved individuals. Youth that are mislabeled as gang-involved individuals may be unnecessarily placed in a secure environment and it affects their long-term case plan,” wrote Kelsey Wong, the program director.

The state found that children were confined only for about four hours at a time, according to the report. One instance lasted 23 hours.

Room confinement is a normal practice at the facility.

Two staff members were disciplined for not following physical restraint protocol, the report found. There was one resident who went a day without medication, but other medical care was satisfactory.

The report confirmed that staff at the facility use “a restraint chair and mesh spit guards” for “out-of-control residents who cannot be safely restrained by less intrusive methods.”

“While in the chair, a mesh spit guard can be placed on the resident’s head to prevent spitting or biting,” the report says, though it notes the disciplinary action against staff members did not involve the restraint chair.

While state officials did not find evidence to support the allegations contained in the lawsuit, they “nevertheless identified areas where SVJC could strengthen its programming for this uniquely challenging group of youth—young people who have been frequently exposed to high levels of trauma, who are separated from their families, and who
confront numerous language and cultural barriers, among others, to succeeding in SVJC and upon their release.”

There were four identified gang markers found throughout the facility, but staff knew of the potential gang affiliations, according to paperwork the state reviewed.

“The team did find that the SVJC is a well-run facility that attempts to treat its staff and residents with respect and dignity,” the report stated.

Recommendations to improve the center included staff training on “positive youth development” and “trauma informed care,” as well as hiring more bilingual staff.

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach.