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'Deeply Flawed' Report Admits Immigrant Youth Put in Solitary and Restrained With Bags Over Their Heads, But Claims 'No Abuse' Found

The treatment teens were subjected to in a Virginia facility "are unacceptable and un-American, whether or not they meet the state's legal threshold for abuse or neglect," says ACLU

Virginia state investigators confirmed that immigrant children who were held at Shenendoah Valley Detention Center were strapped to chairs with bags placed over their heads—but said their treatment did not meet the definition of abuse. (Photo: Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center)

Completing a month-long probe into allegations of abuse at a detention facility in Staunton, Virginia, state investigators confirmed that immigrant children were strapped to chairs with bags placed over their head, as several had alleged—but claimed that this treatment did not meet the definition of abuse.

Several immigrants, some as young as 14, alleged in June that staffers at Shenendoah Valley Juvenile Center (SVJC) had beaten them while they were handcuffed and placed them in solitary confinement for long periods of time. A child development specialist at the facility also told the Associated Press that she saw several children there with broken bones.

"The fact that they conducted all interviews under the watchful eye of detention staff and failed to even talk to counsel who have collected evidence and litigated the case for nearly a year, demonstrates a lack of seriousness in the review." —Jonathan Smith, Washington Lawyers' Committee

According to the AP, many detainees had been sent to the facility after the federal government accused them of being gang members—but a staff member told a Senate subcommittee in April that the immigrants in the center "weren't necessarily identified as gang-involved individuals."

Several plaintiffs in a lawsuit against SVJC which began last November, represented by the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, were held there under both the Obama and Trump administrations, between 2015 and 2018.

The abuse allegations drew widespread condemnation, with Daily Beast reporter Kelly Weill calling SVJC "Abu Ghraib for eighth graders" and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam calling on state officials to conduct a thorough investigation into the conditions at the center.

The review found that a "restraint chair" is sometimes used at the facility, and "a mesh spit guard can be placed on the resident's head." A 23-hour incident of solitary confinement was also identified. But the state "found no abuse or neglect had taken place."

The Washington Lawyers' Committee said Monday that the investigation was "deeply flawed."

"The fact that they conducted all interviews under the watchful eye of detention staff and failed to even talk to counsel who have collected evidence and litigated the case for nearly a year, demonstrates a lack of seriousness in the review," said Jonathan Smith, the group's executive director.

But Northam readily accepted the state's report that no abuse has taken place at SVJC, saying in a statement, "I applaud the quick and comprehensive examination conducted by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Social Services, and encourage the facility to heed their recommendations. The safety of every child being held there is of the utmost importance."

Northam's response to the report on Monday shocked and dismayed critics.

The Washington Lawyers' Committee was adamant that its case would proceed, as the report confirmed that the young immigrants' accusations were true.

"The children in this facility are denied necessary mental health care and subjected to abusive conditions," said Smith. "We look forward to proving our case in court."

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