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‘Enough Is Enough’: Legal Advocates File Petition to Intervene in Family Detention Licensing Case

Tina Vasquez

The petitioners do not understand why Pennsylvania officials haven't exercised their authority to close the facility "despite evidence of serious regulatory violations."

For two years, a family detention center in Pennsylvania has operated in a legal gray area, and now legal advocates who work with people detained in the facility are saying, “Enough is enough.” 

Aldea–The People’s Justice Center, along with a group of currently and formerly detained people at the Berks County Residential Center, have filed a petition to intervene in the litigation between the County of Berks and the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) over the facility’s license. That license has been under scrutiny since 2016.

As Rewire.News reported, the PA DHS Bureau of Human Services Licensing notified Berks County Commissioners and the detention center’s director in January 2016 that it would not renew Berks’ license, and would revoke its certificate of compliance. According to the bureau, Berks was “not operating as a child residential facility” and was instead “a residential center for the detention of immigrant families, including adults.” Berks County appealed, and an administrative judge sided with the county on April 20, 2017, ruling that DHS “did not provide substantial evidence” for its decision and had “acted arbitrarily and capriciously, responding to outside pressures … instead of regulatory violations.”

PA DHS’ counsel was able to petition for reconsideration because the order came from an administrative judge. Now, if PA DHS acting secretary Teresa Miller grants the request, which reportedly is still under review, she can uphold or overrule the decision. 

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The petitioners are arguing that PA DHS has done “an inadequate job of representing the interests of families detained at Berks.” Their statement announcing the action continues, “PA DHS not only has permitted but has stipulated to the continued operation of the facility throughout the licensing appeal despite evidence of serious regulatory violations that PA DHS failed to bring to the administrative judge’s attention.”

These include violations such as placing a father and his 3-year-old son in “medical isolation,” otherwise known as solitary confinement, for two weeks even after the child tested negative for tuberculosis. Berks has also denied children adequate sleep and medical care, according to Aldea attorney Carol Anne Donohoe.

“When Berks’ license expired and its certificate was revoked, there was hope that actually meant something, but sadly we found that was not the case,” Donohoe said in a phone interview with Rewire.News. “The major issue here is that PA DHS is not adequately representing the people detained, it does not have their best interest at heart. This has been going on for two years and we thought it was time, time to intervene and take action and make sure that the people who are detained in this place have a voice in how this is litigated.”

The petition is currently at an administrative court level. If a judge determines that Aldea and its co-counsel on the petition, the Free Migration Project and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, can intervene, the advocates will request a new hearing and supply the evidence they have.

Donohoe pointed out that they are not short on evidence. Berks recently came under fire for detaining a teenage girl named Astrid, Donohoe’s client, in the mostly-male facility, catching the attention of human rights group Amnesty International USA. While Astrid was recently released from the facility with her father, Donohoe told Rewire.News it’s her “personal belief” that “the facility shouldn’t exist.”

“PA DHS has essentially said there is ‘nothing of grave concern’ that would require them to immediately take action to shut down Berks. Keep in mind, this is the only detention center—not just family detention, but in all of detention—with an [institutional sexual assault] conviction. There’s a civil case about it right now because a little girl walked in on a mother being assaulted, but this woman was repeatedly assaulted by the guard. When the little girl saw it happen, it was never reported [to ChildLine]. If that is not a serious violation, what is?” Donohoe said.

A representative with PA DHS told Rewire.News in an emailed statement that Berks “continues to operate while pending appeal, as is its right to due process.” When asked why the agency would continue to allow Berks to operate, given the growing number of allegations of human rights abuses, the representative would only say that PA DHS “has investigated every allegation presented and to date has not found cause that would warrant emergency closure.”

Pennsylvania is becoming a particularly volatile place for undocumented immigrants. As ProPublica reported this week, the state has declared “open season” on undocumented immigrants while law enforcement officials who want to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) target immigrants see it as a “free-for-all.”

Advocates do not understand why state officials haven’t exercised their authority to shut down Berks.

“The fact that the agency tasked with overseeing violations isn’t willing to cite some of the most egregious—like rape—as cause for concern is incredibly suspicious,” said Donohoe, who made a point of clarifying that she and other attorneys don’t seek out detained people to “ask them about horrible things”; rather, detained people seek out the attorneys to tell them about their experiences inside Berks and to ask for help.

“The million dollar question is why. Why are they afraid to acknowledge this is a bad place where bad stuff is happening to children? Is it about county jobs? Are they afraid to lose their contract with ICE? Why are they fighting at all costs to keep this dinky little 96-bed detention center in the middle of nowhere open when nearby, there are two other detention enters that detain 3,000 people?” Donohoe wondered.

“Whatever interests are keeping it open have nothing to do with the well-being and safety of the people inside. They’re the ones really paying the price to keep Berks open.”

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