Women Detained in Federal Immigrant Center Complain of Feeling Unsafe - NBC New York
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Women Detained in Federal Immigrant Center Complain of Feeling Unsafe

Men and women are living in close quarters after the men replaced families who were deported

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    Women Detained in Federal Immigrant Center Complain of Feeling Unsafe
    Karen Hoffmann
    Philadelphia resident Jessica Steffy protests at Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania

    As men are moved into a federal immigrant detention center in Pennsylvania, mothers who usually make up the majority of its residents say they feel uncomfortable and unsafe. 

    By telephone from the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, one detained immigrant mother repeated the word “fear” over and over. She said she was scared “that something is going to happen here,” and asked to speak anonymously, afraid of retaliation.

    The center, which provides lodging for immigrant families as they await deportation, typically houses primarily mothers and children who have been denied asylum, with a few fathers with children sprinkled in. It is one of three family detention centers in the country.

    But after 10 families who had stayed long-term at the facility were deported in May, men and their children replaced them, said Karen Hoffmann, a legal advocate for immigrants at Berks. 

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    Gender ratios vary at the Berks County-run facility, which makes up part of Immigration and Custom Enforcement's network. Earlier this summer, it held seven adult women and 15 adult men, all of whom had children who were also detained. 

    The immigrant mother said that she and other women are worried because they are forced to live in close quarters with the men. 

    ICE said in a statement: “Staff are always posted throughout the center to ensure the safety and security of all residents.”

    It also said that “county staff has received additional training on reporting any form of abuse immediately” and cited a report issued by the Office of the Inspector General on June 7 that said “ICE addressed satisfactorily the inherent challenges of providing medical care, language services and ensuring the safety of families in detention.”

    Another woman, who was recently released from Berks after a months-long stay and asked to remain anonymous while her paperwork is processed, said: “All of the women were uncomfortable with this situation.”

    After a complaint was made to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, ICE has addressed some of the women’s concerns, but other issues remain unresolved.

    The mother who was recently released said that men walked around without shirts, sat too close to her and other women in the TV-viewing area, and made unwanted advances. 

    “They said things to us, like ‘how pretty [you are],’” she said. “We were walking around, and they were looking us up and down.” 

    “The men pay them a lot of attention,” Hoffmann said. “They’re… following them around. Trying to chat with them.”

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    In a report of suspected child abuse and neglect filed through Childline, Pennsylvania's child abuse reporting system, a lawyer from ALDEA, a pro-bono team that provides legal services for all of Berks' detainees, detailed some of the women's allegations.

    Carol Anne Donohoe wrote: “Mothers have reported... that men have entered their room while they were sleeping, they have seen men masturbating under a towel with the door wide open, men and women are forced to clean bathrooms together with no surveillance cameras, and, most disturbingly, girls age 6 and younger are required to be with their fathers in the shower while other adult males are showering as well.”

    The previously detained mother, who has a young son, said ICE did not address her anxieties satisfactorily while she stayed at Berks.  

    “There, there are children, and there are people who have problems and could do something,” she said.  

    Berks is the only ICE facility that keeps men and children under one roof, ICE confirmed. Despite having much larger holding capacities, the agency’s other family detention facilities — South Texas Family Residential Center and Karnes County Residential Center — house only women and children.

    “There is no prison in the country that would allow for the detention together of males and females, and then throw children in there,” Donohoe said. “There’s a reason why that’s not an option.” 

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    All of the mothers have forms of pending immigration relief, which is provided when claims of child abuse, domestic violence, crime victimization, or human trafficking at home are substantiated. Four women have children who have been granted Special Immigrant Juveniles Status, a program meant to protect vulnerable foreign children in the United States. 

    ICE has not allowed most of the female residents and their kids to leave its facility.

    This is not Berks’ first controversy. It made national headlines after a former staff member was tried and convicted in 2016 of institutional sexual assault against a 19-year-old resident. He spent less time in prison than his victim did at the Pennsylvania detention center.

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    Donohoe questions whether the facility’s employees can oversee an environment where men, women and children live safely together in a small space. Her unease was exacerbated by how Berks handled the new conditions: When an influx of men arrived a few months ago, the county-run center placed them in dormitories adjacent to mothers and their kids, Hoffmann said and ICE has confirmed.

    In May, while one of the mothers was resting in her room, a male resident reportedly walked in uninvited. Alarmed, the woman told her attorneys that she asked what he was doing there. He responded that he was searching for water, despite the cafeteria and snack areas being in other, distant parts of the center.

    Some of the women at Berks have fled from domestic violence and sexual abuse in their countries, and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of their experiences. 

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    Donohoe alerted Theodore Dallas, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, of her concerns about the living arrangements in a letter in mid-May. She threatened legal action in a subsequent message on June 5, noting that at least four girls were “not only showering in the same shower room as their fathers, but also with unknown adult males.”

    Resident handbooks issued by Berks in different languages corroborate one of Donohoe’s concerns: according to the English version, kids younger than nine years old must wash up with their parents in order to “not disturb other residents using the shower room,” while the Spanish version ups the age to 12 years. Neither specifies exceptions based on the gender of the parent or child.

    “I think basic common sense or basic protective instincts would say that this is not okay,” Hoffmann said.

    ICE wrote that the shower policy was recently updated, and that handbooks were being rewritten to reflect these changes.

    “Children under the age of 13 are still required to shower at the same time as their parent, regardless if the child is of the opposite sex of the parent,” according to ICE. “However, the shower areas contain separate units that afford residents privacy when they are changing and showering. Therefore, children under the age of 13 do not shower directly with their parent. Also, each family with a child under the age of 13 is now afforded the opportunity to utilize the shower area with no other unrelated residents present.”

    ICE said that even before the policy change, fathers with daughters under the age of 13 did not "shower with their fathers alongside other, unrelated men.”

    ICE has also rearranged the living quarters so that most adult residents are confined to gender-specific hallways. There have been exceptions: two fathers with teen daughters were placed in individual rooms in the same wing as the women, “as staff at the BFRC did not believe it would be prudent to assign the teenage girls to rooms adjacent to all of the adult males,” ICE wrote.

    Berks has placed employees outside of bathroom doors during shower times for protection, according to one mother, and ICE confirmed that “counselors are posted directly outside of the shower areas during times that residents utilize the shower areas.” 

    Most of these changes coincide with a state investigation into the conditions that was prompted by Donohoe's letters to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.

    “Inevitably, it appears that the facility is notified ahead of time,” she said. “And if you know you’re going to have a surprise inspection, it’s not so much a surprise.”

    ICE said that it couldn't comment on ongoing investigations and referred all questions to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which has not responded to repeated requests for information.