State confirms investigation into treatment of Afghan refugee children in Michigan

Posted at 6:14 PM, Apr 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-08 18:14:57-04

(WXYZ) — The state confirms it is investigating allegations Afghan migrant children are victims of abuse here in Michigan, and now an attorney who represents those children is speaking out.

“The number one thing children expressed was concern for families that they left behind, that were still in Afghanistan, that were targets for the Taliban,” said Jennifer Vanegas, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center’s Unaccompanied Children’s Team’s Supervising Attorney.

It filed complaints on behalf of children who went through so much before they came to Michigan shelters. One shelter that served Afghan refugee children was run by Samaritas in Grand Rapids. Another was a federal emergency intake shelter at the Starr Commonwealth Campus in Albion.

Vanegas did not go into detail to protect the privacy of the children. She says, in general, there were complaints about sexual abuse by another child and physical and verbal abuse from staff. At times there were not enough interpreters and excessive rules.

“These are children. It should not feel like detention. They didn’t do anything wrong,” she said.

“After, through an interpreter, hearing stories of these young men. Not knowing if home is still up. Not always knowing where all their family members are… There is a lot of trauma. A lot of complex trauma,” said Kevin Van Den Bosch, the COO of Child & Family at Samaritas.

Samaritas is the state’s largest foster care provider. He says it was proud to, in an emergency, give nineteen unaccompanied Afghan teen boys temporary shelter and care, until they found longer-term homes.

He says when there is a complaint about care, Samaritas immediately reports it to the state. He said it is policy to cooperate and not interfere with the investigation by commenting.

“I am not allowed to give any details. But if a youth comes to us with a complaint of any sort we are mandated reporters,” said Van Den Bosch.

The Michigan Department of Health & Human Services says it is investigating complaints at Samaritas but has no jurisdiction over what happened at the Starr Commonwealth location.

“The department takes very seriously its responsibility to protect all children from abuse and neglect and has contacted the appropriate federal officials for their review since the federal government placed unaccompanied Afghan youth at the Samaritas and Starr-Commonwealth facilities,” Bob Wheaton, Public Information Officer with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement.

Starr Commonwealth tells 7 Action News it provided a campus, but that the federal government provided the programming.

“In October, we were asked to provide a haven to welcome unaccompanied children leaving Afghanistan. We had all seen the heartbreaking photos and videos of people trying to make their way to safety – and we again said yes to that request. The last of these children left our campus in January,” said Mary Ann Sabo, a spokesperson for Starr Commonwealth, in a statement. “When we made our Albion campus available to the federal government, which utilized it as an emergency intake site intended for short-term stays for unaccompanied minors, ORR was responsible for providing staffing, programming, meals, etc.”

Sabo says Starr Commonwealth was serving as a landlord for the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement and voiced concerns when it heard about issues.

“Of course, as is always our practice, when we are aware of concerns that potentially impact the safety or health of children we will always raise issues and advocate for children – always. In this case, we did share a number of concerns with both ORR and PAE,” said Sabo.

Vanegas says the response her organization gets to complaints indicates the state provides important accountability and answers for children. She says she believes that should be a lesson.

“ I think it is important to highlight that while it appears the emergency intake site is closed for now, that if a site like that were to open in the future to push for state oversight,” said Vanegas.