From One Trauma to Another: Guard Pleads Guilty to Sexual Assault of Asylum Seeker in Family Detention
By Olga Byrne
Last week a former guard at the Berks County Family Detention Center pled guilty to charges of institutional sexual assault against a 19-year-old asylum-seeking mother who was detained at the facility at the time. Judge Theresa Johnson of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas sentenced the man to six to 23 months in prison followed by three years’ probation, pursuant to a plea agreement.
This& is not the first time a guard in an immigration detention center has sexually assaulted women under his supervision. In 2010, a guard at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center pled guilty to sexually assaulting five women detained there. Other cases may have gone unreported. The Department of Justice estimates that while there are up to 209,400 incidents of sexual victimization annually in prisons and jails, less than eight percent of victims report it to authorities.
The 19-year-old mother was not the only victim of the Berks incident. An eight-year-old girl, who was also detained at the facility, told police she walked in on the guard assaulting the woman in the bathroom. After that incident, the little girl was afraid to leave her mother’s side.
Like many women who are leaving Central America to seek asylum in the United States and other countries, the young mother victimized by the Berks guard had fled gender-based violence in Honduras. The conditions of detention—even if they are designed to be less punitive than institutions in the criminal justice system—can replicate the power and control dynamics that survivors of domestic violence have experienced, making it even harder to heal from past trauma. For example, last December when nine mothers reached out to the Berks Detention Center with serious concerns related to their children’s health, federal immigration officers responded by suggesting they abandon their asylum cases and accept deportation.
I visited Berks last summer and met with three mothers who had been detained there at the time of the guard’s arrest. They described the aftermath of the incident and noted that the facility did not take measures to provide coping therapies or alleviate fear and anxiety among the women or children.
Instead, the facility began to monitor women‘s choice of clothing more closely. A revised version of the handbook provided to families included a dress code, which applied to all residents age five or older, and forbid certain types of clothing such as “form fitting pants” as well as dresses and skirts unless approved for religious purposes.
The victim of the assault also described feelings of alienation and a “blame the victim” response. As she explained to a reporter last year when news of the assault surfaced: “Detention turned into hell for me. Everyone looked at me as if I was the guilty one. Nobody approached me to help me or ask me how I was.”
Women’s groups, including the National Organization for Women (NOW), have joined countless faith based, refugee rights, immigrant rights, and child rights organizations to call for the end to family detention. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson calling for an end to the administration’s detention of families. They emphasized that detention, which is associated with poorer health outcomes, makes the situation worse for already vulnerable mothers and children. The AAP also questioned whether family detention facilities were capable of providing generally recognized standards of care for children.
The Berks facility’s response to the sexual assault is just one of many examples indicating it is not suited to care for vulnerable women and their children.
Human Rights First issued a report on Berks last year detailing the health concerns associated with detaining asylum-seeking families and recommended that the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services take steps to revoke the license it had granted to Berks County to detain immigrant children. In February, the Pennsylvania authorities responded to the pleas of mothers, their lawyers, and advocates, and did not renew the Berks detention center’s license.
Now, Pennsylvania should take the next step and seek an emergency removal order—which is within its authority—to free the asylum-seeking children and families detained at Berks. If and when Pennsylvania acts, Immigration and Customs Enforcement should allow the families to pursue their asylum claims in the community in the care of relatives who have been waiting to receive them.