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Claim: Migrant children molested while in US-funded foster care

In this Aug. 7, 2019 image made from video, attorney Michelle Lapointe speaks with her client, a Guatemalan immigrant, in Santa Ana, Calif. The father is preparing to sue the federal government, alleging his 8-year-old boy was sexually molested in a foster care home funded by the U.S. Health and Human Services agency. He says he is still struggling to soothe his son’s lasting nightmares, and that the 3rd grader, once talkative and outgoing, is now withdrawn and frequently says he wants to leave this world. (AP Photo/Krysta Fauria)

By Associated Press Staff

SANTA ANA, California — After local Guatemalan officials burned down an environmental activist’s home, he decided to leave his village behind and flee to the United States, hoping he’d be granted asylum and his little boy, whose heart was failing, would receive lifesaving medical care.

But after crossing the border into Arizona in May of last year, Border Patrol agents tore the man’s 7-year-old son from his arms and sent the father nearly 2,000 miles away to a detention center in Georgia. The boy, now 8, went into a U.S.-funded foster home for migrant children in New York.

The foster care programs are aimed at providing migrant children with care while authorities work to connect them with parents, relatives or other sponsors. But instead the boy told a counselor he was repeatedly sexually molested by other boys in the foster home.

A review of 38 legal claims obtained by The Associated Press — some of which have never been made public — shows taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $200 million in damages from parents who said their children were harmed while in government custody.

The father and son are among dozens of families — separated at the border as part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy — who are now preparing to sue the federal government, including several who say their young children were sexually, physically or emotionally abused in federally funded foster care.

With more than 3,000 migrant children taken from their parents at the border in recent years, many lawsuits are expected, potentially totaling in the billions. Families who spoke to the AP and FRONTLINE did so on the condition of anonymity over fears about their families’ safety.

“How is it possible that my son was suffering these things?” the father said. “My son is little and couldn’t defend himself.”

The families — some in the U.S., others already deported to Central America — are represented by grassroots immigration clinics and nonprofit groups, along with some of the country’s most powerful law firms. They’re making claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act as a precursor to filing lawsuits. The FTCA allows individuals who suffer harm as a direct result of federal employees to sue the government.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Erik Walsh, an attorney at Arnold & Porter, which has one of the world’s leading pro bono programs.

The firm has so far filed 18 claims on behalf of nine families, totaling $54 million, and Walsh says dozens more are likely coming.

The government has six months to settle FTCA claims from the time they’re filed. After that, the claimants are free to file federal lawsuits.

The departments of Justice and Homeland Security — both named in claims — did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement, Health and Human Services — the agency responsible for the care of migrant children — said it does not respond to pending litigation and that it serves children in a compassionate and organized manner through its Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“The important work happening in each of the facilities and programs in the ORR network around the country — work ORR has done successfully since 2003 — takes an experienced team of competent, hardworking men and women dedicated to the welfare of the children,” HHS spokesman Mark Weber said. “We treat the children in our care with dignity and respect.”

Last year, the Office of Refugee Resettlement cared for nearly 50,000 children who crossed the border by themselves, as well as children who were separated from their families under the zero tolerance policy. The agency housed them in foster programs, residential shelters and detention camps around the country, sometimes making daily placements of as many as 500 new arrivals, from babies to teens.

The allegations of abuse and assaults in foster care raise fresh questions about the government’s efforts to place younger children with families in lieu of larger shelters and packed detention facilities.

Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing joint investigation between The Associated Press and the PBS series FRONTLINE on the treatment of migrant children, which includes an upcoming film.