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Chicago shelter finds no evidence that migrant children in its care were abused

Diogo De Olivera Filho, 9, is one of two Brazilian boys who alleged abuse at Casa Guadalupe, a Heartland Alliance shelter in Chicago. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

A Chicago shelter accused of mistreating migrant children separated from their parents said Tuesday that an internal investigation had found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Heartland Alliance said a two-week investigation, including an extensive review of video footage, turned up no evidence of physical abuse at Casa Guadalupe. Three children had described disturbing incidents to The Washington Post and the New York Times after they were reunited with their parents.

Among the most serious allegations recounted in a July 15 Post story: Two boys from Brazil, 10 and 9, said they had seen a shelter employee repeatedly give injections to a 5-year-old from Guatemala, after which the boy became sleepy. An 11-year-old boy from Guatemala claimed he had been roughly dragged off a soccer field. And the 10-year-old from Brazil said he had been denied medical attention after breaking his arm.

“We were horrified to read those allegations,” said Evelyn Diaz, the president of Heartland Alliance, in a conference call with reporters. “Honestly, they came as a huge surprise to us. And we took them very seriously.”

While state and federal authorities continue to pursue their own investigations, Diaz said Heartland wanted to release its findings as soon as possible.

“We are confident that we have conducted a thorough investigation,” she said, “but if [the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services] surfaces some information that is going to help us do our jobs better or that indicates any unsafe practices, we’ll take immediate action. Our priority is always the safety of the children in our care.”

Attorneys for the children said they stood by their clients and would await the results of independent investigations. They pointed out that Heartland Alliance did not interview any children as part of its internal investigation, which the nonprofit said was because the children were no longer in its care.

Immigrant kids in shelters: ‘They told us to behave, or we’d be here forever’

“Heartland might not consider the allegations substantiated, but I think there is a definitely an issue when multiple children attested to seeing the same thing,” said Amy Maldonado, an attorney representing the 5-year-old boy named Adonias.

Jesse Bless, an attorney representing the two Brazilian boys, agreed.

“Heartland’s internal report is nothing to cause any doubt in my mind as to the allegations made by my clients,” he said.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who cited The Post’s reporting when calling for a federal investigation into the allegations, said he was “pleased that Heartland Alliance took my call for a timely internal investigation seriously.”

“The allegations made by children in The Washington Post article were distressing,” he said in a statement. “It is my hope that the ongoing [Health and Human Services Department] investigation, as well as the Department of Children and Family Services investigation into Heartland will be completed in a thorough and timely manner.”

Linda Coberly, a Heartland Alliance board member and a managing partner of Winston & Strawn LLP, which helped conduct the internal probe, said there had been “extensive” footage reviewed from Casa Guadalupe’s common areas, including the classrooms where the two Brazilian boys said they saw Adonias injected after he misbehaved.

“There is no evidence of children being injected in the classroom,” she said. Coberly added that shelter staff “do not use injectable medications to control behavior” and have no access to syringes. Instead, vaccinations were done at a separate building by medical professionals, she said.

Similarly, the internal investigation found no evidence that the Brazilian boy had broken his arm and been given a temporary cast by a shelter employee.

As far as the older Guatemalan boy’s claim that he was roughly dragged off a soccer field, Heartland Alliance said a child had complained in June that a staff member held him by the wrist. The incident was reported to DCFS, which took no action at the time but is now reinvestigating, the non-profit said.

“Interviews and a review of video indicate that the staff member behaved appropriately and that no child was dragged by anyone,” Heartland Alliance said in its report.

In addition to the claims of physical abuse, the children told The Post they had to scrub toilets with their bare hands.

Heartland Alliance said Tuesday that children at its nine shelters, including Casa Guadalupe, are assigned “age-appropriate chores which are done using the necessary supplies and materials under the supervision of trained staff.”

Heartland is part of a network of providers paid by the federal government to shelter thousands of children who cross the border alone and more than 2,500 who were taken away from their parents by the Trump administration before it ended the practice last month.

Diaz said Heartland Alliance shelters held 399 children and employed about 500 staff. The non-profit had housed 99 children separated from their parents under the the president’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, she said, but 90 had been released to their parents or other family members.

Diaz added that she and other officials are adamantly opposed to family separation, which has traumatized children and posed extra challenges for shelters like Casa Guadalupe.

“Treating a child in this manner is wrong, and it has caused incalculable harm to these children and their families,” she said. “We have done our best to pick up the pieces from some of these very destructive policies.”