The Least of These

What were the initial conditions like at Hutto?

What were the initial conditions like at Hutto?

Initially, there was no licensing requirements for family detention at Hutto, because there was no precedent in the United States. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services exempted Hutto (View PDF document of letter) from child care licensing regulations, with the justification that the parents or guardians of the detained children are detained with them and considered responsible for their care and supervision. The only standards for family detention are the ICE Detention Standards and the Flores v. Meese settlement agreement. In 2007, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children found that Hutto was in violation of both these sets of requirements and that only ICE staff inspected the facility, without any independent or third-party oversight.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed several lawsuits in the spring of 2007 on behalf of 26 children detained at Hutto, wrote:

At the time of the ACLU’s initial court filings, child detainees had to wear prison garb. They received one hour of recreation per day and opportunities to spend this hour outdoors were very rare. Children were detained in small cells for about 11 or 12 hours each day, and were prohibited from keeping food and toys in these cells, which lack any privacy…In addition, access to adequate medical, dental, and mental health treatment is severely limited and, as a result, many children suffer from chronic ailments that worsen as they are left undiagnosed and untreated. Children are not afforded meaningful educational opportunities. Guards frequently discipline the children by threatening to separate them from their families.

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Additionally, the Women’s Commission report found:

• According to accounts from families detained at Hutto, they are not afforded sufficient clothing or laundering services so that they are forced to wear a dirty or used set of undergarments at least one day a week.

• Those detained at Hutto are not afforded any privacy in the use of toilets and showers, and facilities fail to regulate water temperature appropriately for children.

• Many detained at Hutto indicate that they only receive 5-10 minutes to eat, and that sometimes staff members yell at them to get up and leave before they have finished eating or feeding their children.

•  Pregnant mothers reported that they were not provided with prenatal care.

• The Flores settlement stipulates that children will receive “at least one (1) individual counseling session per week conducted by trained social work staff.” In addition, the settlement prescribes group counseling sessions at least twice per week. There are no regularly scheduled individual or group counseling sessions at [Hutto], other than…family disciplinary counseling at Hutto. The lack of regular counseling at Hutto is reinforced by the mental health coordinator’s statements that in an ideal situation detained individuals would be scheduled for weekly counseling sessions, and that his colleague was uncertain how to develop group sessions in a short-term setting.

• Detainees indicate that they are discouraged from accessing mental health services through a combination of factors, including threats of family separation in response to mental health problems, language barriers and the requirement at Hutto that all members of the family attend any session with a mental health staff member.

• The Flores settlement also stipulates that children receive educational services appropriate to their communication skills, which suggests that provisions should be made for accommodating various levels of English proficiency. At Hutto, parents complained that their children are not learning in the classes because they do not speak English and teachers are not able to speak Spanish.

• Teachers at the Hutto facility are required to be only “license-eligible” in the State of Texas. They do not have to hold a license from the state or school district to obtain employment at this facility.

• Children at Hutto were not allowed to have their own toys, so whatever toys they could find to play with during their one hour of recreation time had to be left behind in the gymnasium. No toys are permitted in the cells at Hutto.

• Because there are no staff guidelines or ICE policies on disciplining children, neither parents nor guards are clear about what to do in a situation where a parent is unwilling or unable to control his or her child. In our interviews with families and through personal observations we found that discipline issues played a large role in undermining family unity, health and stability. On the one hand parents have no control and feel powerless to discipline or influence their children’s behavior. On the other hand the fear of being separated from their children due to disciplinary issues creates enormous pressure to control their children. This results in extremely stressful parent-child relationships. Additionally, children feel anger and resentment toward their parents for leading them into the detention setting and for not being able to protect them, while the parents feel guilt, stress, helplessness and frustration.

• Recreation is inappropriately withheld as punishment, in violation of both Flores and Detention Standards.

• Climate control-particularly extremely cold temperatures-is used for discipline or for controlling loud or active children, in violation of the Flores settlement.

•  Threats of separation are used as discipline, and children and parents alike are very afraid that they will be separated, which creates a climate of extreme stress.

• Separation of days or months has reportedly been employed as a disciplinary tactic.

• Verbal abuse is used as a form of discipline, in contravention of both the Flores settlement and the Detention Standards. Abuse includes such tactics as telling detainees, particularly children or adolescents, that they are worthless.

• People detained in Hutto reported that they are routinely told that applying for asylum will result in being detained for eight months or longer, which discourages them from seeking political asylum.

• At Hutto there were four phones in each pod, none surrounded by a privacy screen, although both the Flores settlement and the Detention Standards require that detainees must be provided with privacy during legal calls.

• The Flores settlement affords detained children visitation rights, stipulating that visitation be structured to encourage privacy for visitors and children during visitation to the extent practicable. However, at Hutto all visits with friends and relatives are non-contact and take place by telephone through a Plexiglas wall. In addition…guards are present in the visitation rooms, undermining families’ sense of comfort and ability to communicate openly with visitors.