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The shocking events that unfolded at Penn State last week are a stark reminder of the sludge that rises to the surface when a sexual abuse scandal is uncovered. Victims often fail to speak out — perhaps out of embarrassment, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of the sheer fact that no one will take them seriously.
Accused perpetrators hide their behavior. If discovered they deny, minimize and often blame the victim.
If an intermediary institution, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the military or even a university, connects the abuser to the abused, many forms of misdirection emerge: silence, tunnel vision, cover-ups, lies, disingenuousness, a bad memory, changing the subject, plausible deniability and on and on.
At least the sordid details of the Penn State case were revealed and the institution finally moved to act.
What happens when sexual abuse is discovered and the institutional facilitators are identified and hardly anyone notices or cares — let alone does anything about it?
About three weeks before the Penn State scandal broke, two sources reported the prevalence of sexual abuse suffered by the undocumented, most of whom are Hispanic, confined to detention centers. An ACLU report counted nearly 200 formal complaints of sexual abuse between 2007 and 2010 lodged by immigrants housed in these facilities.
At the same time, PBS aired Frontline’s “Lost in Detention,” a film that documents the plight of some 350,000 immigrants detained each year. The cameras focused on the privately-run Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas.
One woman was detained for bouncing a $230 check a decade prior. When interviewed, she recounted in harrowing detail the unwanted groping and sexual battery she endured at the hands of a guard. Rather than subject herself to more degradation, she asked to be deported, leaving behind her four young children who are U.S. citizens.
In conducting a survey at Willacy, a mental health coordinator heard from an HIV-positive male detainee who stated that he was raped repeatedly by another male inmate. The guard simply looked away. A non-English-speaking female told her in wrenching terms about a guard who was “touching her in places that she didn’t want to be touched.”
The ACLU reported on the sexual abuse complaints raised by two Hispanic women detained at the privately-operated T. Don Hutto Center in Taylor, Texas.
One who fled a Central American country fearing political persecution was detained attempting to cross into the United States. An immigration official ruled she was eligible to seek political asylum. On her way to the airport, the driver, a Hutto guard, “started touching me all over. He pulled up my bra, fondled my breasts and put his hand down my pants. He was touching himself.”
The other is a woman who left South America to escape an extremely abusive husband. She was detained crossing the Rio Grande River. Again an immigration officer decided she could seek asylum. On the way to the airport, the same driver “lifted my shirt and began touching my breasts and grabbing between my legs.”
Sexual abuse in detention centers is certainly more pervasive than that reported by the ACLU. Detainees live in isolation and are very vulnerable. They are understandably reluctant to turn in those who guard them, and unlike the Penn State situation where police authorities eventually intervened and blew the case wide open, they have preciously few intermediaries working on their behalf.
As at Penn State, federal officials knew at least something about the charges of sexual abuse in detention facilities. Indeed, the ACLU gained its information from the Department of Homeland Security after prying it out with a freedom of information request.
Once the Penn State allegations became public, howls of indignation filled the air. Not so in response to the detainee findings. Major broadcast and print media were eerily silent.
Key executive branch officials were less than forthcoming. When Cecilia Muñoz, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, was asked by Frontline about the reports of sexual abuse, she redirected the question to discuss recent attempts by Homeland Security to improve conditions in the detention facilities and the need “to fix a broken system.”
President Obama, speaking about Penn State through his press secretary, said, "If the allegations of what happened up there prove true, what happened is outrageous," He has said nothing about the sexual abuse charges in his administration’s U.S.-based detention centers.
Jim Lamare is an editor with Hispanic Link News Service in Washington, D.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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