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Texas Investigates Migrant Child Abuse Claims At Freeman Coliseum After Abbott's Calls To 'Shut Down This Facility'

 Gov. Greg Abbott, center, at a press conference at Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum.
Gov. Greg Abbott, center, at a press conference at Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has leveled a serious allegation against the federal Department of Health and Human Services: that child abuse is occurring in an emergency care facility at Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio.

The accusation — made in a Tuesday-evening press conference — marks an elevation in the governor’s public campaign against the Biden administration’s border policy.

Abbott has repeatedly criticized the administration’s decision to allow unaccompanied children into the country, calling it “open border policies” — even though families and adults are still turned away, in violation of federal and international asylum law.

There are about 1,645 children staying at the San Antonio Emergency Intake Shelter as of April 7 according to HHS.

In a hasty press conference on Tuesday, Abbott said state agencies have received complaints about sexual abuse, lack of food, lack of supervision and improper COVID-19 protocols at emergency intake site in San Antonio operated by HHS. He said the people who made the allegations are remaining anonymous.

“To end this abuse, the Biden administration must immediately shut down this facility,” Abbott added.

According to the Associated Press, Texas child welfare officials said they received three reports alleging “abuse and neglect” and the state is investigating. Abbott said the claims were reported to two different state agencies.

“I don’t have their names, and I don’t know if their names were disclosed,” Abbott said during the press conference. “I will say this, however, it is my understanding the allegations come from more than one person who has been in this facility.”

He said they didn’t know how many children were reported to be abused but were “concerned it could be more than one.”

If true, this wouldn’t be the first time a migrant child was abused in federal custody, but it is the first time state officials are investigating these claims at an emergency facility for unaccompanied children who cross the Mexico-Texas border.

When asked why he’s holding a press conference about the allegations now, Abbott said, “This is the first allegation of abuse received by a Texas State agency — that I'm aware of — during the course of this episode of children coming across the border.”

The governor previously requested access to federal facilities in Texas, so that state law enforcement could interview detained children about how they got to the border.

Precinct 1 Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores toured the facility with Abbott after his press conference. She told the AP she wishes the governor “had done his tour before the press conference when he politicized children.”

She added that children are put in COVID-19 “pods” and are fed three meals a day.

 Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference outside Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum. He alleges child abuse is occurring inside the emergency care facility for unaccompanied migrant children.
Dominic Anthony Walsh / Texas Public Radio
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference outside Bexar County's Freeman Coliseum. He alleges child abuse is occurring inside the emergency care facility for unaccompanied migrant children.

Former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro also criticized Abbott for announcing these allegations before conducting investigations into the complaints.

“If he has reason to believe that there is mistreatment what he should do is turn that information over to federal authorities who are charged with investigating these things so that they can be addressed. Instead of that, he held a dramatic press conference at the Freeman Coliseum and has said the state government, that does not have purview over these issues… is going to do an investigation,” said Castro.

Officials with HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) said they don’t discuss individual cases regarding unaccompanied children.

“ORR has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and inappropriate sexual behavior at all UC (unaccompanied children) care provider facilities and acts quickly to address any alleged violations of policy, including initiating employee disciplinary action, termination, or reporting to appropriate investigative entities, such as law enforcement agencies and relevant licensing bodies. We will not comment further on the specifics of the referenced cases,” a statement said.

Representatives with RAICES — a non-profit legal service that focuses on immigration — said they don’t have any information on the facility and can’t comment on the issues the governor raised.

“Despite earlier reports that RAICES provides services at the Freeman Coliseum in Bexar County, TX, our organization has not been contacted to provide the legal services there that we have provided in similar locations, including Lackland Air Force Base, Fort Bliss, Tornillo and Carrizo Springs,” said Jonathan Ryan, CEO at RAICES, in a statement.

“We do want to make it clear that our priority is the well-being of the children, and because of that, we have joined other organizations in San Antonio calling for more oversight on these children detention facilities. That demand stands.”

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Dominic Anthony Walsh covers energy, the environment and public health for Texas Public Radio. He focuses on stories that reveal how major changes in climate systems, energy markets and public health policies affect communities in his hometown, San Antonio, and across the state.
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Bri Kirkham comes to San Antonio after living most of her life in southern Indiana. She graduated from Ball State University with degrees in journalism and telecommunications.