LOS FRESNOS, Texas (AP) – The round-cheeked 17-year-old boy with wide chocolate eyes hadn't felt like a child for some time. He'd spent months trying to reach the U.S., clinging to the tops of steel trains, holed up with kidnappers, shivering in a chilly Border Patrol holding tank.
So, when the boy landed one winter day at a shelter for immigrant children caught in the U.S. illegally and alone, it seemed more like summer camp than a detention center.
In that oasis along a rural slab of Texas borderland, children chased soccer balls in the sun. The food was warm. The staff smiled.
He told the Houston Chronicle that one staff member, a burly night-shift worker, even brought him little gifts: woven bracelets and batteries for his MP3 player, a reward for good behavior.
The Honduran teen didn't think anything of it -- until the night-shift worker crept up to his bunk bed late one night after the dorm lights were out.
Record-breaking numbers of children and teens like the Honduran immigrant caught in the U.S. illegally without a parent or guardian are being swept into a strained and secretive federal detention network.
Some 60,000 are expected this year -- up from about 6,560 in 2011, according to government estimates.
The unaccompanied children are housed in a labyrinthine network of more than 90 state-licensed shelters, foster homes and detention centers that the government describes as "safe havens." Most children are well cared for.
But a Houston Chronicle investigation found that youths inside the insular system have quietly suffered abuses by the people paid to protect them.
The system has repeatedly failed to hold abusers accountable, despite a federal law that makes sexual contact with a detainee a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, the investigation found.
The full extent of sexual and physical abuse in the federal shelters is unknown. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency responsible for the children's care, has no specific system that tracks abuse allegations all the way through the investigative process -- from outcry to outcome.
But for the first time, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Chronicle, the government has released copies of 101 "significant incident reports" from March 2011 to March 2013 involving abuse allegations against staff members. The Chronicle reviewed thousands of pages of records from federal, state and law enforcement agencies in five states and interviewed officials, former shelter staff and residents.
Among the Chronicle's findings:
-- Children and teenagers reported having sexual contact -- ranging from kissing to unwanted touching to intercourse -- with staff in Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois, the federal records show.
-- The Office of Refugee Resettlement relies on state childcare licensing and local police to investigate abuses of the children in its care, instead of notifying the FBI of serious allegations. In the hands of local police and prosecutors, criminal cases have crumbled because of sloppy detective work, communication gaps with federal officials and jurisdictional confusion.
-- No shelter worker has been prosecuted under a 2008 federal provision that makes sexual contact with a detainee in ORR's care a felony.
-- Youths in ORR custody in Texas were molested as they slept, sexually harassed and seduced by staff members during the past decade, records from state childcare licensing investigators and law enforcement show. They were shoved, kicked, punched and threatened with deportation if they reported abuses, investigators found.
-- Federal officials were slow to adopt clearer, more stringent policies to help prevent and punish abuse. They wrote an interim rule to comply with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act only after Congress specifically ordered them in March 2013 to do so. The act requires strict standards for reporting, tracking, preventing and punishing abuses. ORR's proposed rule remains tied up in the regulatory process.
ORR Director Eskinder Negash said the agency is dedicated to protecting children in its care and ensuring that abuses are properly reported and investigated. He said ORR already makes sure that shelters follow state childcare licensing requirements for reporting abuses.
"The safety and the well-being of the children is our No. 1 priority," he said. "Every time there is an incident, regardless of how small it is, we make sure that the best interest of the children is protected, and we investigate, we follow up, we do training."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who authored the 2008 amendment that allows for federal prosecution of those who sexually abuse youths in ORR care, said in a statement that she was "extremely troubled" by the cases identified in the Chronicle's investigation.
"Federal officials have a duty to ensure the well-being of those in their custody, and I expect this law to be fully enforced," she said.
In response to the Chronicle's findings, she wrote a letter to the White House office reviewing ORR's Prison Rape Elimination Act regulation, urging regulatory officials to swiftly enact the provision to better protect children.
Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio immigration attorney who frequently represents children, said the detention network is in critical need of independent oversight, particularly with the growing numbers of children pouring in.
"This is a recipe for abuse and neglect of kids," Brandmiller said. "This would not happen in any other system, with any other kind of victim."
By law, the government treats unaccompanied children from countries other than Mexico differently than adults. Instead of entering immigration detention centers, youths are handed over to ORR, which houses the vast majority in state-licensed shelters and releases about 90 percent of them to relatives or other sponsors in the U.S. while their immigration cases are pending.
ORR requires shelters to file a "significant incident report" within 24 hours of receiving an abuse allegation. The government also requires shelters to follow state childcare licensing requirements for abuse reporting.
The outcome of many of the abuse investigations stemming from the significant incident reports remains off-limits to the public. State child protective officials in several states, including California, Arizona and New York, cited child abuse and neglect laws in refusing to discuss specific incidents.
The Chronicle's investigation found problems in the detention network dated back years. During the past decade, state childcare licensing investigators in Texas have documented more than 100 serious incidents in shelters and foster programs that held only ORR detainees. Dozens of workers were fired or disciplined in connection with sexual, physical and verbal abuses, maltreatment, inadequate supervision and inappropriate behavior and relationships.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Michelle Brane, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program for the Women's Refugee Commission, which has monitored the detention system for unaccompanied children for more than a decade. "I imagine there are many cases we don't know about."
More than a decade ago, Congress stripped U.S. immigration officials of the responsibility of caring for children caught in the U.S. illegally and alone, citing a litany of abuses under the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. Lawmakers shifted responsibility for their care in the spring of 2003 to ORR, a small agency under the Department of Health and Human Services.
The change created a loophole in federal law that became evident in the spring of 2007 in Nixon, a small town outside of San Antonio.
The FBI came out to investigate allegations that a 41-year-old worker named Belinda Leal had sexually abused a string of teenage boys detained in a shelter in Nixon. But federal prosecutors determined they lacked jurisdiction to charge Leal under a federal law criminalizing sexual abuse of ward because it specifically applied to inmates in Department of Justice custody.
Leal was sentenced to seven years on state charges. She is scheduled for release in June.
ORR shut down the Nixon shelter and pledged reforms, including a "zero tolerance" policy for abuses.
Feinstein's amendment closed the federal loophole in 2008.
The change in law did not affect a caseworker in a Fullerton, Calif., shelter accused of fondling teenage boys in his office in 2007 and 2008. A jury convicted the worker on six state charges and he served 14 months in prison, but several charges were overturned on appeal.
Since Congress tightened the federal law, ORR has not notified the FBI of any abuse allegations involving staff members, said Jallyn Sualog, director of the children's program for ORR. ORR ensures shelters follow state childcare licensing guidelines for abuse reporting, she said. Sualog said the FBI "defers to local law enforcement, and they will only take the lead and do an investigation if there is no local law enforcement involved."
Kelly Kleinvachter, a national FBI spokeswoman, did not respond to specific questions about whether the agency defers to local law enforcement or would investigate abuses within the federal shelter network if notified.
The Chronicle's investigation found that case after case fell apart after landing on the desks of local law enforcement.
-- A night-shift worker at a shelter in Brownsville sneaked up on a sleeping 17-year-old from Honduras and molested him early one morning in July 2010, according to statements by both the victim and the worker to Brownsville Police. "I really do mean (it) when I say I made a mistake and am willing to go to jail for what I did," the 27-year-old worker told police. In the case file, the detective wrote that the case originally was assigned as "indecency with a child by sexual contact." "No arrest will be made as the victim is 17 years old and he is not considered a child by Texas law," he wrote. The detective reclassified the case to a Class C misdemeanor -- the equivalent of a traffic ticket. The worker paid a $350 fine and now has a clean record.
-- In August 2011, a state childcare licensing investigator cited a shelter in Harlingen after determining a worker had an "inappropriate relationship" with a detainee. The worker was fired. The licensing investigator reported to Harlingen Police that he had "received information that a sexual relationship involving a 17-year-old boy and 51-year-old female had taken place" at a shelter. Harlingen Police went out to the shelter to investigate nine months later, after they were contacted by a reporter. They then determined that because the shelter was neither a school nor a jail, and the alleged victim was 17 -- the age of consent -- there was no crime under Texas law. "We don't have jurisdiction over the feds," HPD Sgt. John Parrish said.
-- A 39-year-old temporary worker at a Catholic Charities shelter in Cutler Bay, Fla., was fired in September 2011 after a 15-year-old boy told shelter administrators that she awakened him early one morning and led him into the shelter's laundry room and had sex with him. The case was referred to the Miami-Dade Police Department, but prosecutors ultimately declined to charge the worker. In the memo closing the case, the Miami-Dade State's Attorney's Office noted that the shelter "had custody of the child and did not wish to pursue prosecution of the subject." A second boy, 16, reported to his aunt in California after he was released from the shelter that he had oral sex with the same worker. Police eventually interviewed the boy and told him he could press charges. By then he had turned 18, and he declined.
"These cases are falling through the cracks," said Brane, of the Women's Refugee Commission. "There is a lot of confusion over who is supposed to do what."
Brane has lobbied for years for ORR to adopt a framework outlined by the Prison Rape Elimination Act Commission in 2009 for the reporting, tracking and punishment of abuses in custody. She said the government needs to enter into formal agreements with police and prosecutors to prevent cases from falling apart.
At the shelter in Los Fresnos, the 17-year-old boy didn't report what happened to him for more than a day.
He just cried.
A teacher in the shelter, run by the nonprofit International Educational Services Inc., eventually noticed his tears and asked what was wrong, the boy recalled. He said the night-shift worker came into the dormitory after midnight and stopped at his bunk bed. He asked where he had hidden the trinkets, then sexually assaulted him, the lad said.
"He said something bad would happen if I told anyone," he said.
The teacher quickly reported the abuse, and the night-shift worker was suspended and then resigned. The state cited the shelter for abuse. The staff member was arrested by Cameron County Sheriff's detectives on suspicion of indecency with a minor in February 2009.
Sam Smith, an assistant Cameron County district attorney, described what happened next, when an investigator went out to the shelter to find the boy and prepare him for trial: "We asked them, where is he? They said, `Uhhh, I don't know."'
Unable to call the boy as a witness, Cameron County prosecutors had no choice but to go to court and ask for dismissal of the charge, Smith said.
A judge dismissed the case, signing off on a motion that stated the victim was 17 at the time of the crime. Indecency with a minor covers victims only under 17.
The shelter's director, Roberto Lerma, declined comment.
The night-shift worker walked free. He did not return repeated phone calls to his home in Brownsville. His attorney also did not return phone calls.
"We certainly would have prosecuted the case, but we didn't have the victim," Smith said.
But using public records, a reporter found the Honduran lad living in Garland. He had turned 18 that summer in 2009 and was transferred to adult immigration detention. He posted bond and was released from custody, leaving his address on file with the U.S. government.