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This is Child Abuse: Social Worker Breaks Silence over Conditions Inside Immigrant Detention Center

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Olivia López, a longtime social worker, began working at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas last October but decided to leave her position in April after she says it was clear she had been hired to give the appearance of a well-supported medical unit. She says her efforts to improve documentation of the mothers’ care and concerns were repeatedly blocked. “Based on my experience there, I’ve come to that conclusion, that it was child abuse to separate a child from his or her mother,” López says. She testified Tuesday at a hearing organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Our guests are immigrants’ rights attorney Barbara Hines and Olivia López. Olivia López is a longtime social worker who was on the staff at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, where more than 500 migrant women and their children were detained, many seeking asylum. This week she is speaking out for the first time about what she saw, and testified Tuesday at a hearing organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Democrats from the House Judiciary Committee.

Olivia López, thank you also for joining us. Talk about what you found. When were you first sent to Karnes to work?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: Thank you for having me today. I first started at Karnes in October of 2014 and resigned April the 2nd of 2015.

AMY GOODMAN: And, well, talk about what you found. What did you expect to find in a detention center?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: Well, I think the most—I’ve talked about this before—the most startling thing for me, once I got into the center and back to the medical department, was the clanging of the doors. I mean, really, I felt it really was a prison at that point. You know, the sally port doors and the clanging and monitors all over. And it just felt like that to me. And later, I just came to realize that it was that.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you asked to do?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: Well, I was hired as the lead licensed social worker there to do social work with the women and supervise two other employees that would also assist in that effort. And so, what I discovered in my experiences there were that social work in that setting at Karnes City was much different than the social work that I know as—in employing and as I know as a social work professor. And that is to say, the basic functions of advocacy, empowerment and then just engagement were really not part of the interpretation of social work at Karnes City residential center.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you try to document what you saw?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: Yes. You know, there’s a weekly monitoring that occurs at Karnes City, and it’s a mental health check to make sure how women are doing and how their children are doing. And at the bottom of that form there’s a place to list, you know, comments or—excuse me—concerns that women have, and so it would be on that form in that place where I would write and log what their concerns were or those issues that they raised. And it was on that form that I was informed that—not to write anything down on that beyond that the resident had been instructed on the referral process. So, whatever concerns that resident would have raised would not then be on that form.

AMY GOODMAN: During your congressional testimony on Tuesday, you really had some harrowing testimony about a chickenpox outbreak. Can you describe what happened and when this was?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: Yes, it was the mid-part of March 2015. There was a chickenpox outbreak at Karnes. And my understanding was that the main office ordered that all the women and children have blood draw to see who had the antigens for the chickenpox outbreak—that is to say, those who would have a higher risk of getting chickenpox. And so, all the women and children had to have the blood draw. And so, in some orderly fashion, the women and children were put into the medical department and into the waiting room. And so, you know, they would take the kids and the mothers back to the rooms to draw blood. And the kids, really, were just so frightened and terrified, and they cried and they screamed. And we all heard it—I did—for the week or so that it happened. And then, just one day, I just came out of my office during the time when they were taking the blood draws, and I witnessed a small child, less than two, try to escape the medical department. He was so afraid about the blood draws. And all the kids really were, but he was the one that tried to escape. And that’s what I spoke about yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the women being put in isolation?


AMY GOODMAN: Solitary confinement? And the federal authorities say this is not a prison, but they’re put in federal—in solitary confinement?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: Well, certainly, it’s not called that there, but what I came to understand is that when women were being reprimanded or punished or wanted some—or GEO wanted some behavior modification, they and their children will be placed in a medical observation room. But truthfully, I just came to understand that those rooms really were for punishment and behavior modification. They were not free to leave the rooms. They were in there for the duration of the time of their punishment, for the lack of a better word.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: Well, just like Barbara—I mean, we talked about this yesterday, too—family detention is not a place for these families and children. I mean, they’re not criminals. They are fighting to save the lives of their children and themselves. And so, there are other ways, there are other mechanisms, to be able to take care of these families and children. We have social workers out in the communities that can serve as a function as case management to be able to monitor them and also to be able to serve as the first line of defense for them in terms of social service needs, mental health needs, medical care, referrals—the whole advocacy process, which is that of social work. And it seems to me that that would be a better mechanism than imprisoning families and children who are not criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you describe what you saw there as child abuse?

OLIVIA LÓPEZ: You know, since I’ve left Karnes, I’ve had some time to kind of think about that, and now I have just come to—based on my experience there, I have come to that conclusion, that it was child abuse to separate a child from her mother, his mother, his or her mother. And then that child would also be isolated, for example, if the mother was on a suicide watch. That child would also be isolated from its mother, you know, taken care of by a guard who the child doesn’t know, and bathed by a nursing staff. And, you know, they sleep alone, without the protection of their mother. And that really qualifies, under the types of abuse, as emotional abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to California Congressmember Judy Chu speaking Tuesday about her visit to the detention center for women and children at Karnes, Texas, that’s run by the private prison company, GEO Group.

REP. JUDY CHU: During our visit, I kept on asking myself: Why is our government doing this to families who pose no threat at all? Why is the government spending $337 per day at Dilley and $161 a day at Karnes to lock up women and children, when there are less expensive alternatives available, such as alternative detention? The answer to this is the private interests and their profits. DHS contracts with the private prison industry, like the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, to run these facilities, and then turns a blind eye as to whether these detainees are receiving adequate care. That’s unacceptable, and we have to hold these contractors accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s California Congressmember Judy Chu. Recently released campaign finance documents revealed corporate backers also have the ear of Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. One of her donation bundlers is a private prison company lobbyist at Akin Gump who helped block requirements that CCA—that’s the Corrections Corporation of America—respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. Barbara Hines, can you comment on this?

BARBARA HINES: Well, I think that Representative Chu said it so well. The private prison industry has an interest, has a profit motive, in expanding incarceration of immigrants, and this is a prime example. They have tremendous lobbying power and no child welfare experience. And I don’t think in any other situation would we ever allow the private prison industry to take care of children.

And one of the things that I find so disturbing and so shocking is, since I was involved in the litigation to end the first family detention center, at the T. Don Hutto facility, that was run by CCA—and when CCA opened that facility, they had little children in prison uniforms, three-month-old babies in prison uniforms. And this was the same—they thought that was acceptable to have children in a penal institution. CCA is the same facility that is running the largest not only detention camp, but the largest detention facility in the country, filled with mothers and children.

AMY GOODMAN: You also saw children being given adult doses of vaccines?

BARBARA HINES: I didn’t actually see it. I was at Dilley the day of the incident. I spoke to a mother at that time who was very upset that her child had been vaccinated that day. She claimed—told me that the nurses and the staff treated her child very roughly. She complained. She told me that her child—she told me that her child could not walk. He was feverish. He was in really bad shape. And then she said to him, “Show her.” And he pulled down—he was four years old. He pulled down his pants, and I saw all of these marks, and his eyes welled up with tears as he showed them to me. Yes, and what this ended up being was overdosing children with a hepatitis vaccine forcibly and without the consent of the parents, the mothers.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to follow this story. Barbara Hines, I thank you so much for being with us, longtime immigration lawyer, formerly with the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, now a fellow at Emerson Collective. And, Olivia López, thanks so much for speaking with us, veteran social worker who worked at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas, then left. This is Democracy Now!, as we move to our last segment today.

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