The US quickly set up facilities for unaccompanied migrant youth crossing the border amid a recent uptick.
Texas child welfare officials are investigating three reports that allege abuse and neglect at a San Antonio coliseum that is holding more than 1,600 migrant teenagers who crossed the southern border.
It is the first time state officials announced they are investigating such allegations at one of the emergency facilities the US government has quickly set up in Texas amid an increase in crossings of unaccompanied youths.
One of the allegations includes sexual abuse, but no further details were provided.
A county official, who also volunteers at the San Antonio site the Freeman Coliseum, told the Associated Press news agency the nature of the allegations does not align with what she has seen in multiple visits to the facility.
Child welfare officials would not reveal details about who made the allegations, but Republican Governor Greg Abbott said his understanding was that they came from someone who had been inside the facility.
Other allegations include insufficient staffing, children not eating and those who tested positive for COVID-19 not being separated, Abbott said at a news conference that he quickly arranged outside the facility on Wednesday evening.
For weeks, Abbott has joined Republicans in criticising the Biden administration for the handling of the migration challenges at the US southern border.
“This facility should shut down immediately. The children should be moved to better-staffed and better-secured locations,” Abbott said.
Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, who has been inside the facility as an elected official as well as a volunteer, said the teenagers are offered three meals and two snacks a day and anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 is put in a separate area far from other children.
She toured the facility with Abbott after his news conference and said he asked staff questions that included COVID-19 testing protocols.
“I wish the governor had done his tour before the press conference when he politicised children,” said Clay-Flores, an elected Democrat.
Biden opened the borders & failed to plan for the influx of unaccompanied minors.
Now he must respond to allegations of child abuse & neglect on his watch.
DPS & TX Rangers are investigating.
The administration must close the facility & protect these children. pic.twitter.com/s1chzDQYlx
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) April 8, 2021
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a statement that it could not comment on specific cases but “has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and inappropriate sexual behavior”.
The allegations were received by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
Spokesman Patrick Crimmins said he did not immediately know if the state had received other abuse or neglect allegations at emergency sites for migrant youths in Texas.
Rush to open facilities
HHS has rushed to open large sites to house migrant children across the southwest amid the increase in crossings of unaccompanied youths at the southern border.
The agency’s lack of capacity as border crossings were rising at the start of the Biden administration has led to children sometimes waiting for weeks in overcrowded and unsuitable Border Patrol facilities.
In March and April, HHS has added more than 17,000 beds at convention centres, camps for oilfield workers, and military bases – more than doubling the capacity of its longstanding system of permanent facilities that took years to open.
Last month, the US government stopped taking migrant teenagers to one site in Midland as it faced questions about the safety of the emergency sites. Midland County District Attorney Laura Nodolf said on Wednesday they have been “faced with allegations that have resulted in an ongoing criminal investigation” but offered no further details.
She said the allegations were also reported to federal officials.
To staff its emergency sites, HHS waived regulations that normally apply to its permanent facilities, including bypassing FBI fingerprint background checks for all caregivers.
It has hired a mix of contractors and nonprofits to staff the sites, with job postings going up in several cities seeking people to start work immediately. However, there is no information to suggest any staff member is accused of assaulting a child.