LOS ANGELES (CN) – Undocumented immigrant children separated from the parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and detained at a Texas immigrant detention center after being separated from their families must be moved to a less restrictive setting, after a federal judge on Monday found the facility violated a decades-old settlement.
In a 32-page order, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee said children detained at Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas, must be transferred somewhere less like a prison while they go through the immigration process.
Gee said the facility and its operator the Office of Refugee Resettlement violated provisions of the 1997 Flores settlement, which sets standards for the detention, release and treatment of all undocumented children in federal custody.
Under the Flores settlement, child detainees must be released to relatives or other custodians or placed in facilities within 20 days. Facilities housing the children must be “the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs.”
The judge found the Shiloh facility breached the agreement by locking children in restrictive, 24-hour surveillance settings. She ordered the facility to stop using security measures that are “not necessary” to protect the children.
In court filings, the plaintiffs cited as an example of the treatment at Shiloh an incident in which child detainee Julio Z. was thrown to the ground by guards after repeatedly requesting a drink of water.
Attorneys with Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of the children on April 16 lawsuit, claiming the Office of Refugee Resettlement had also breached the Flores settlement by administering psychotropic drugs to detained children without a court order or proper medical consent.
Gee said in her order Monday that the facility must adhere to Texas child welfare laws and obtain proper medical consent.
“If defendants are not able to obtain such informed written consent, then they may not administer the psychotropic medication to the class member unless they obtain a court order authorizing them to do so under Texas law or there is an ‘emergency,’” Gee wrote.
A child may only be kept at Shiloh if a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist says the child is a danger to themselves or others, Gee said.
The judge also said detained children must be released more quickly to family or sponsors. Children placed in secure facilities – even when the placement was based on erroneous information – don’t need to wait for approval by authorities or until “post-release” services like mental health counseling are in place. The kids’ attorneys had argued both led to prolonged detention.
While Gee said the facility didn’t violate the agreement by housing the kids together – under the terms of the settlement, they’re entitled only to private storage space – she found the facility violated the kids’ privacy rights by denying them access to private, unmonitored telephone calls. She ordered the facility to allow children to “talk privately” on the phone.
Despite the government’s breach of the Flores settlement, Gee declined to hold the Office of Refugee Resettlement in contempt.
She also chastised both sides – the plaintiffs for seeking “extracontractual remedies” and the government for claiming its actions are protected by a bill on human trafficking that supersedes the Flores agreement.
“Both sides apparently fail to comprehend the court’s role in these proceedings,” Gee wrote, reminding the parties she’s bound by the terms of the agreement and can’t arbitrarily add language to it.
Both parties will have until Aug. 10 to propose any amendments to Gee’s order.
A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson said in an email the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation but will review Monday’s order to “determine next steps.”
The kids’ attorneys Peter Schey and Carlos Holguin did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Last week, Gee said she intends to appoint a special monitor to give “impartial and unbiased” reports on conditions at migrant child detention facilities.