A World Cup soccer match was playing on the shelter’s TV when the two older teenagers tackled Alex on July 1 and dragged him into the empty bedroom. Wrestling him onto his stomach, one of them, a tattoo on his forearm, got on top. As Alex struggled to move, he said he could feel the teen’s penis grinding against his butt.
“Take off his shorts!” he heard the other teen, who’d bragged he’d been a gang member in Honduras, shout. “Let’s get him naked!”
Just 10 days earlier, Alex, 13, had been caught by the Border Patrol after traveling from Honduras with his 17-year-old sister and 5-year-old stepbrother, to flee the country’s gang violence. Now, they were being held at Boystown outside Miami, one of more than 100 youth shelters in the government’s sprawling system meant to provide a temporary haven for migrant children caught crossing the border.
The two teens had been taunting Alex since he’d arrived at the shelter, making crude sexual jokes about his pregnant sister. Now, in the bedroom, Alex said, they yanked down the front of his shorts.
“At least your sister has already tasted a man,” he heard one of them sneer. “But you haven’t even tried a woman.”
Alex said he fought as hard as he could, somehow managing to pull up his shorts and kick until he broke free. As he lay on the floor catching his breath, he said, the boys fled, warning him to keep his mouth shut.
Over the past six months, ProPublica has gathered hundreds of police reports detailing allegations of sexual assaults in immigrant children’s shelters, which have received $4.5 billion for housing and other services since the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America in 2014. The reports, obtained through public records requests, revealed a largely hidden side of the shelters — one in which both staff and other residents sometimes acted as predators.
Several of the incidents have led to arrests of shelter employees or teenage residents. And in one particularly heinous case, a youth care worker was convicted in September of molesting seven boys over nearly a year at an Arizona shelter. The employee had worked for months without a full background check.
Coverage of such incidents by ProPublica and other media triggered demands for investigations.
Arizona’s governor ordered a statewide inspection of the shelters, leading to the shutdown of two centers run by Southwest Key after the nonprofit failed to provide proof that its employees had completed background checks.
And late last month, federal investigators warned that the Trump administration had waived FBI fingerprint background checks of staffers and had allowed “dangerously” few mental health counselors at a tent camp housing 2,800 migrant children in Tornillo, Texas.
But ProPublica’s review of the hundreds of police reports showed something else about the assaults. Something that went beyond background checks. Kids at shelters across the country were, indeed, reporting sexual attacks in the shelters, often by other kids. But again and again, the reports show, the police were quickly — and with little investigation — closing the cases, often within days, or even hours.
And there are likely even more such cases. ProPublica’s cache of records is missing many police reports from shelters in Texas, where the largest number of immigrant children are held, because state laws there ban child abuse reports from being made public, particularly when the assaults are committed by other minors.
Now, as the immigration system struggles to house and care for 14,600 children — more than ever before — an examination of how federal and state authorities investigated the assault against Alex, one of those children, reveals startling lapses.
For a few days, Alex said, he didn’t report his assault, heeding his attackers’ warning, worried that speaking up would delay his release from Boystown. But as they continued to harass him, he decided to tell his counselor.
The counselor told him that a surveillance tape had captured the teenagers dragging him by his hands and feet into a room, and that there might have been a witness.
But Alex’s report did not trigger a child sexual assault investigation, including a specialized interview designed to help children talk about what happened, as child abuse experts recommend.
Instead, the shelter waited nearly a month to call the police. When it finally did, a police report shows, the shelter’s lead mental health counselor told the officers “the incident was settled, and no sexual crime occurred between the boys like first was thought among the staff.”
And instead of investigating the incident themselves, officers with the Miami-Dade Police Department took the counselor’s word for it and quickly closed the case, never interviewing Alex.
A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Miami, which received $6 million last year to care for about 80 children at Boystown, said it handled Alex’s case correctly, blaming him for any delays. In response to questions, a Miami-Dade police spokesman said the department was reopening the case.
An examination of Alex’s case shows that almost every agency charged with helping Alex — with finding out the full extent of what happened in that room — had instead failed him.
The police closed Alex’s case 72 minutes after responding to the call.
Alex’s mother, Yojana, had just gotten off work on July 27, bone-tired after another hot day installing swimming pools in southwest Missouri, when the call came from Boystown. She’d been expecting her regular chat with her children, so when her cellphone showed a Florida number, she answered excitedly.
Yojana had left them behind in Honduras four years earlier to seek a better life in the United States. Now after a month in the shelter, they’d soon be reunited.
But instead of her children, she heard the unfamiliar voice of a shelter staff member. Something had happened to Alex.
There was surveillance video, the woman said, showing two older teenagers grabbing Alex, throwing him to the floor and dragging him into a bedroom.
“But there are no cameras in the room,” she said, “so we couldn’t see the rest.”
The woman passed the phone to Alex, who sobbed as he told his mother what happened in the bedroom.
When she hung up, Yojana was furious. The attack had happened more than three weeks ago. Why was she only finding out about it now? Where was the staff? Why wasn’t anyone watching them? And what if the attack had been worse than Alex said?
As a mother, Yojana said her instincts were to go to the police — to break down any door she had to — to make sure the shelter and the teens were held accountable. But she knew that in the United States, she wasn’t just any mother. She and her husband, Jairo, had separately crossed the border illegally several years earlier and had been living in the country without permission ever since. The family agreed to let us tell their story as long as we didn’t use their last names.
Yojana had reason to worry. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been arresting parents and family members, or members of their households, who are in the country illegally when they come forward to claim their children. This month, ICE said it had arrested 170 such sponsors, or people connected to them, between July and November; 109 of those people had no criminal record.
If Yojana and Jairo went to the authorities, or pressed too hard, they could risk everything they’d worked for.
Weeks earlier, Alex had started on a path he thought would lead to help. Four days after the attack, he finally got up the courage to report it to his counselor. “She told me it was very sad what happened to me and that she was very sorry,” Alex recalled. His counselor took him to the office of her supervisor, Marianne Cortes, where he repeated his story.
Then, he said, Cortes told him that she and his counselor would watch the surveillance video and “if it’s like you told me, we’ll put in a report.” After they watched the video, Alex said, his counselor told him that there was something else on the tape, something he hadn’t realized during the attack. There’d been a witness.
“In the video, my counselor told me there was another boy in a window,” he said.
But then, after those revelations, nothing happened. There was no further investigation.
In an interview, archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said at that time there was no reason for one. Alex “was interviewed by staff, and he claimed it was verbal harassment, sexual gestures and teasing about his sister, but no nudity,” she said.
The staff had reviewed the surveillance footage, she said: “They did grab him by his hands and feet and take him in the room.” But, she said, it was “humiliating,” not criminal.
Start your day with National Memo Newsletter
The opinions that matter. Delivered to your inbox every morning
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is expected to launch his presidential bid next week in New Hampshire. Christie, warts and all, is a welcome addition to the Republican field for anyone with the ultimate goal of defeating Donald Trump, be it in the Republican primary or the general election.
In Christie's view, that type of timidity and deference to Trump will only result in a Trump nomination.
“There’s one lane. And that one lane, Donald Trump’s at the head of. So, if you want to be the nominee, you got to go through Donald Trump. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it,” Christie told ABC’s This Week in March, as he worked to build momentum for his candidacy.
Christie has clearly gained some traction with the donor class for his approach. This week, his allies launched a super PAC, and he will be obligated to make good on his promise of attacking Trump head-on if he wants his bid to continue being funded. Though Christie has at times been deferential to Trump (e.g., the infamous hostage video after he endorsed Trump in 2016), Christie also has a legitimate beef with Trump after leading his presidential transition team only to have Trump demote him once he actually won the White House.
Christie's chances of actually winning the nomination are likely dim. In 2016, his main contribution to the GOP field was to obliterate the candidacy of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida during a debate just before the New Hampshire primary. Rubio had some momentum coming out of Iowa, but his fifth-place finish in the Granite State turned out to be the death knell of his candidacy. Christie, however, finished sixth, failing to even crack double digits. He dropped out shortly thereafter.
But to the extent that Christie makes good on his promise to challenge Trump head-on, others in the Republican field will benefit, as will Democrats. Any direct hit Christie lands on Trump during the primary provides Democrats with attack fodder in the general election, should Trump come out ahead.
The Republican primary is still Trump's to lose. Defeating him, as I have argued, will take an all-hands-on-deck approach: Christie broadsiding him (because no one else will), likely more indictments, the emergence of a real Trump alternative (it's not at all clear that DeSantis fits that bill), and the willingness of all the juiceless also-rans to drop out either before Iowa or immediately after. The odds are exceedingly long, but they still exist.
Lice so severe that even kerosene couldn’t kill them. Shoeless feet padding aimlessly. Gross malnourishment.
That’s how people described the Yellow Hammers, a semi-isolated colony of the ostracized and downtrodden in Illinois that developed during the Reconstruction Era.
The history of the Yellow Hammers is murky. As the legend goes, a Colonel Brodie of the Civil War — it doesn’t include a first name — came home to Alabama, the Yellowhammer State, and relocated to Wilmington, Illinois where he purchased several acres of wooded land and invited anyone from his home state to come live on it, creating essentially an encampment people called “Brodie’s Woods.” Those people who relocated to Wilmington from Alabama were impoverished, almost permanently, and made pariahs in the community as they huddled on Brodie’s land.
The pariahs’ poverty prevented those among them who were employed from purchasing their own equipment so they used company tools — when they were able to work — whose handles were painted yellow.
These stories, reported by a high school student, can’t be confirmed. First, the only nineteenth century colonel named Brodie was about 12 years old when the Civil War started. One William Brodie from Alabama fought in the Civil War but there’s no record of his being a colonel. A now defunct local Chicago newspaper, the Surburbanite Economist, reported in 1970 that an area of Wilmington, Illinois was known as Brodie’s Woods, but that’s one of very few verifiable mentions of the area.
The more likely story of the root of Yellowhammer is that a cavalry of soldiers from Huntsville went to Kentucky during the Civil War to aid Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s — history will call him both a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and an innovative warrior — Company A of the Confederate Army. They wore new sharp gray uniforms adorned with brilliant yellow trim. A Confederate soldier in tatters said they looked like the bird the yellowhammer, a type of woodpecker, which was made Alabama’s state bird in 1927. The Yellowhammers ended up becoming valuable team members; they supported several of Gen. Forrest’s victories, one of which frustrated Gen. Ulysses Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign.
That the history of the Yellow Hammers is so hard to pin down says quite a bit about the state today; tracing what really happens proves difficult. Even though Alabama media tries to cover events inside the prisons, the state of news in 2023 dictates that coverage isn’t as complete as anyone would like.
Just as the history of the Yellowhammers is unclear, the view into Alabama’s prisons is muddied by the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and its commitment to opacity. The officials who run that system do not like looksies. Early this year, ADOC stopped releasing the number of in-custody deaths on a monthly basis, ostensibly because there were so many that they either couldn’t keep up or didn’t want to be embarrassed by their inability to protect the state's wards.
Nevertheless, the reports of carnage that keep dripping out — two men were murdered on May 15, 2023, an additional pair added to a list of over 60 since January 1, 2023 — have contributed to a narrative that men and women in Alabama prison are incorrigible, even feral, when all they’re doing is adapting to the environment that the state has established for them.
The truth is that a good number of them are quite high-minded. When they staged a strike last fall, they didn’t even protest the squalid conditions they live in, which happen to be deplorable. Instead they sought policy reform on sentencing and parole which will ultimately benefit people beyond them.
Their strike demands were imminently reasonable, despite Gov. Kay Ivey’s disagreement. But the demands were really only part of the story of the strike. My sources tell me that — under the guidance of some dedicated leaders who I won’t name now — rival gangs and sworn enemies convened in good faith to hammer out what they needed to ask for. In that respect, they’re behaving better than many of us on the outside if they can display that type of comity. They came together despite the fact that they worry every day — along with family and friends — that they’ll be killed or starved. They’re fighting back non-violently. Bravely.
That doesn’t mean the wind is under their yellowhammer wings. Gov. Ivey just signed a bill into law that reforms the so-called “good time” statute by making it harder to earn time off one’s sentence because ADOC failed to take the good time of someone who attempted escape. Their resilience doesn’t mean they’re safe now or being treated justly. It’s just the opposite.
Alabama’s prison population reflects a lot of their yellowhammer history. Like woodpeckers, they’re tenacious fighters. Much like the Yellowhammer Cavalry in 1862, they're nimble, capable of putting up a few wins, but then ultimately forgotten.
And they aren't living much differently than Brodie’s Yellow Hammers. Some aren’t supplied shoes and therefore aren’t allowed in the chow hall. As I have reported before, the ADOC intentionally starves them when they assert their rights. They wander, often squatting in dorms where they’re not assigned because they want to avoid being raped. The violence doesn’t cease; I hear reports of outright beatings that all too often result in lost “good time” but no medical treatment. And they huddle, displaced and ostracized, in one of Alabama’s 15 state-sanctioned colonies of fear and panic.
But unlike the legend of Brodie’s Woods, these tales are true and verifiable. There’s no fiction here. It’s traceable. It tracks, all too well.
That’s why today The National Memo announces an unflinching series that goes inside Alabama’s criminal legal crisis: the Yellowhammer Files. We’re going to trace and track data and stories until something changes. Check these files as they are published and you will be stunned by what you read.
Chandra Bozelko served more than six years in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent. Her work has earned several professional awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Los Angeles Press Club, The National Federation of Press Women and more.Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.