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As Months Pass in Chicago Shelters, Immigrant Children Contemplate Escape, Even Suicide

September 8, 2018 in Blogs

By ProPublica

Internal documents reveal despair and tedium in one of the nation's largest shelter networks for unaccompanied minors.

One 16-year-old from Guatemala said he wanted to “quitarme la vida,” or “take my life away,” as he waited to be released from a Chicago shelter for immigrant children. He was kept there for at least 584 days.

A 17-year-old from Guinea went on a hunger strike, telling staff members he refused to eat until he saw evidence they were trying to find him a home. He was released nearly nine months after he entered a shelter.

And a 10-month-old boy, forcibly separated from his father at the U.S.-Mexico border in March, was bitten repeatedly by an older child and later hospitalized after falling from a highchair. He was detained for five months.

ProPublica Illinois has obtained thousands of confidential records about the nine federally funded shelters in the Chicago area for immigrant youth operated by the nonprofit Heartland Human Care Services — some dating back years, others from as recently as last week.

The documents provide a sweeping overview of the inner workings and life inside one of the country’s largest shelter networks for unaccompanied minors, including children separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy.

While the records focus on Illinois shelters, they provide a rare glimpse of a secretive detention system that holds children at more than 100 sites across the country. They include descriptions of serious incident reports filed with the federal government, caseworkers’ notes on family reunifications, employee schedules, daily rosters, internal emails and more.

The documents reveal the routines of life inside the shelters, days punctuated by tedium and fear as children wait and wait and wait to leave. They spend their days taking English lessons and learning about such peculiarities as American slang, St. Patrick’s Day, the NFL and the red carpet fashions at the Academy Awards. They complain about the food and mistreatment by staff. And they cry and write letters and hurt themselves in despair.

In what they say and write, and in what is said and written about them, one truth becomes abundantly clear: The longer …read more


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