Durbin calls for investigation of abuse allegations at shelter for separated children

CHICAGO — Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) urged Heartland Alliance to investigate claims of physical and emotional abuse at Casa Guadalupe, a shelter run by the organization in Chicago, after the Washington Post detailed allegations from children who were cared for in the facility after they were separated from their parents.

Among the allegations of abuse included in the story and detailed in Sen. Durbin's letter to Heartland Alliance were a boy who said he was dragged from a soccer field, another who said he was denied medical care after breaking his arm, and a boy who alleges he was separated from his sister.

The Chicago City Council addressed issues of immigration and possible abuse at a meeting of its Human Relations Committee Tuesday, including testimony from a number of immigrants who are in the country illegally or are currently protected by DACA.

Among those who testified was a woman who came from Honduras with her five-month-old son. If that happened a few months ago, that woman would have been sent to detention, her child taken away from her and possibly taken to a Heartland Alliance facility in Chicago that cares for unaccompanied minors.

Heartland Alliance has taken in 73 children who were separated from their parents at the border, and another 450 children who came to the U.S. without their parents, as young as five months old to 17 years old. Evelyn Diaz, Heartland's president spoke to the City Council's  Human Relations Committee about the crisis at the border and reuniting families Tuesday.

At the same time, new allegations came to light in the Washington Post from young children, nine, ten, and eleven years old who were cared for at Heartland's Casa Guadalupe. One nine-year-old boy said he got chicken pox and was put in isolation for three weeks. When he tried to get out, workers put a gate up.  He told the post, "I felt like a prisoner. I felt like a dog."

"The children in our care are sad and scared and want to be with their parents and we want to be responsive to that," Diaz said.

Diaz says the paperwork that comes with the children is incomplete, so there are teams working 24/7 to help find the parents, help them communicate with their children, and eventually reunite them. Contrary to other facilities, children are not kept in cages or large and sterile environments, according to Diaz. There are clinical social workers, physicians, psychiatrists and teachers who care for them.

"The Chicago shelter feels different from other shelters. It feels like a loving place," Diaz said.

After her testimony, Diaz left quickly and refused to answer any questions.

Sen. Durbin called on Heartland Alliance to look into the allegations Tuesday, saying these children have already endured far too much trauma.

Heartland Alliance released a statement saying:

Recent allegations about our programs are disturbing as they do not reflect our values or the quality of care we strive to provide.  We immediately initiated an investigation upon learning of these allegations over the weekend, and we welcome Senator Durbin’s call for an investigation of our programs from the Office of Inspector General.  If any investigation reveals that a staff member placed a child in danger or did not follow protocols, we will immediately remove them from their duties. We have augmented the staff capacity and oversight at our shelters while we await the outcome of any and all investigations, and all shelter staff are receiving additional mandatory training on trauma-informed care by the end of July.

Ensuring the safety and well-being of children is our top priority.  We have extensive policies, procedures, and standards of care that guide our approach to ensure the safety and well-being of all children in our care. It is not our practice to ever use injections for behavior management—our staff are well-trained in handling childcare and emotional issues.  We provide a structure of learning and play at our shelters, children are given age-appropriate chores, and we nurture all children in our care.  And, as we run residential shelters, we are proactive in preventing the spread of communicable diseases to keep from spreading illnesses among children.