Two young children were allegedly sexually abused after they were forcefully separated from their asylum-seeking fathers at the Arizona-Mexico border and placed into foster care, according to a lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of the fathers.
The lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court of Arizona on Friday, alleged that the children, who are referred to by pseudonyms, were each separated from their fathers for about 70 days in 2018.
During that time, the children, 7-year-old Obet and 5-year-old Herlinda, "suffered abuse while in U.S. government custody."
Obet allegedly suffered "severe" sexual abuse at the hands of other children that went "beyond external touching," according to the lawsuit, and a boy residing at the same foster home as Herlinda allegedly "inappropriately touched her chest."
The children have since been reunited with their fathers, but continue to suffer "physical, mental, and emotional harm because of the intentional, reckless, and negligent acts of U.S. government policymakers at the highest levels, whose goal was to inflict harm and instill terror," the lawsuit says.
As a result of the separation, the lawsuit claims that Obet exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and suffers from traumatic flashbacks, nightmares, and extreme separation anxiety.
Herlinda also exhibits PTSD symptoms and has nightmares, is quick to anger, and suffers from low self-esteem, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial, according to the complaint.
Came to the US for medical care, but ended up traumatized
Obet and his father, who is referred in the lawsuit by the pseudonym Abel, came to the U.S. fleeing persecution in Guatemala and seeking medical care for Obet’s heart and chest conditions.
Obet and Abel reached Arizona around May 15, 2018, when they asked a Border Patrol agent for asylum.
The agent, according to the lawsuit, "seemed enraged" when he came across Obet and Abel, calling them "[expletive] animals" in Spanish while keeping his hand on his weapon.
Border Patrol agents continued to talk down to Abel, telling him he doesn't "belong here" and ignore his pleas for medical attention for Obet.
After two days in Border Patrol custody, agents separated Obet from Abel, according to the lawsuit.
The agents "forcibly wrenched Obet out of Abel’s arms. Abel and Obet kept holding hands. The agents ripped their hands apart and took Obet away."
Abel remained at the Border Patrol station in Arizona for another 10 days, at which point they flew him to a different detention center. He was transferred to other detention facilities in Georgia and Texas, with no explanation or notice, according to the lawsuit.
Obet was sent to New York and placed in an institution operated by a government contractor, Cayuga Centers. He spent his days at the center and nights at a foster home with several other children.
The lawsuit stated that Office of Refugee Resettlement records reflected that "children climbed into Obet’s bed and touched his penis, buttocks, and chest."
However, the lawsuit claims that the "sexual abuse went beyond external touching and was much more severe."
Obet told the foster adult about the alleged abuse each time, but they allegedly claimed they were unaware of the abuse after Obet reported it to a counselor.
The counselor reported it to the New York Police Department, but the department closed the case after the government transferred Obet to a Texas detention facility, alleging “all leads [were] exhausted” because Obet left New York and Cayuga Centers could not get in contact with him.
Abel and Obet spoke only once during the approximately 70 days they were separated.
Abel was never charged with any criminal offense, according to the lawsuit.
5-year-old claims another child inappropriately touched her
Herlinda and her father, who is referred in the lawsuit by the pseudonym José, reached the U.S. near Yuma around May 8, 2018, after fleeing violence and extortion in Guatemala.
They encountered immigration officials and were placed in a Customs and Border Protection facility, where the lawsuit claims that one agent told José in Spanish, “You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? We’re going to take the girl away and send her to a detention center for minors and you’re going to be imprisoned.”
Border Patrol officials separated Herlinda and José after they spent two days in the detention facility.
"José describes the scene as being 'like a funeral,' with grown men and women openly and uncontrollably weeping," the lawsuit said.
José was held in the detention center for about a week when he was taken to a courthouse and told by officials that he was sentenced to "time served" for entering the U.S. illegally.
He was eventually transferred to another detention facility in Georgia, while Herlinda was being held at Lutheran Social Services in New York.
Herlinda spent her days at the Office of Refugee Resettlement-run program and her nights at a foster home associated with Lutheran Services.
During this time, the lawsuit alleged, she was watching TV at her foster home when a boy residing at the same home "inappropriately touched her chest."
Herlinda was moved to another foster home, but the boy remained in her "class” at Lutheran Services and later allegedly tried to grab Herlinda’s face and kiss her.
Separately, in several instances, Herlinda was locked alone in a room as “punishment.”
José and Herlinda spoke about six times during the approximately seven weeks that they were separated.
They were eventually reunited in Texas and resettled in Massachusetts, where they are pursuing their immigration cases.