Immigration

‘Stop complaining.’ Immigrant child’s head was cracked open by shelter bully, lawsuit says

Guatemalan boy tells the moment he was bullied inside a child detention center

After being separated from his family he was taken to a child detention center where he was bullied for trying to help other kids.
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After being separated from his family he was taken to a child detention center where he was bullied for trying to help other kids.

Not even a bloody skull was enough to keep a frightened 11-year-old immigrant boy separated from an older bully inside a shelter for minors, a lawsuit filed Monday in Miami federal court alleges.

For about two months, a 14-year-old identified as M.A. in court documents harassed his younger roommate, Geremy, despite his pleas to the guards.

“Stop complaining,” the supervising employees would tell Geremy Asig-Putul, who was separated from his mother, Otilia Asig-Putul, at the U.S.-Mexico border in May, the complaint said.

And when M.A. tripped Geremy — causing him to bang his head against a metal bed frame and bleed out — the staff never told his mother. Instead, they took him to the hospital to be stitched up and placed him back in the room with M.A., court documents allege.

“A little bit more and they would have given my son back to me in a small wooden box,” Asig-Putul said.

Asig-Putul, an asylum-seeker, arrived at the border illegally in Arizona on May 9 after a long trek from Petén in northern Guatemala with her son and nephew.

For one teenager who fled violence in El Salvador on his own in 2014, the days he spent in a Texas border detention center were some of the worst of his life. He tells us what it was like.

Three days later, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services separated Asig-Putul and Geremy. Geremy was sent to a shelter for immigrant children in Chicago run by Illinois-based company, Heartland Human Care Services, Inc.

The grieving mother, who filed a negligence lawsuit against Heartland on Monday, remained in an Arizona jail cell for 35 days before being released in mid June. She was recently reunited with her son in Miami and sat down with the Miami Herald to discuss their ordeal.

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Geremy, an 11-year-old boy, and his mother, Otila Asig-Putul, looks at a scar from an injury he incurred after being separated for two months at the U.S.-Mexico border as they tried to enter the country illegally in May, July 16, 2018. The family is now suing the U.S. government after they say the boy was bullied in the Chicago shelter. HIs injuries were so bad that his head was “cracked open” and he needed staples. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

“My most vivid memory is being told my child was going to be taken away from me as I was cuffed at the wrists and ankles,” she said with her face in her palms. “I begged the guards to not let my son see me in handcuffs. I made him turn around. What was he going to think of his mother?”

Asig-Putul’s arrival came just days after the Trump administration announced that all adults crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally would be prosecuted — a “zero tolerance” policy imposed in April that has resulted in nearly 3,000 migrant children being forcibly removed from their parents by U.S. border agents.

In June, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the process of separating children from their families at the border. But the order did not take into account how the administration would reunite the children already separated from their parents.

Immigrant detention is expanding under the Trump administration, increasing the risk of sexual assault in a system where abuse is not uncommon. Two women told us their stories of being sexually abused by guards while under the custody of ICE.

Citing “privacy concerns,” a Heartland spokeswoman told the Miami Herald the company is “unable to comment publicly on the specific circumstances of any child who may or may not have been in our care.”

“This is our first time learning of these claims,” said Heartland spokeswoman Mailee Garcia in an email, noting that the human rights organization has been running shelters for unaccompanied minors for more than two decades.

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Geremy, an 11-year-old boy talks to the media after he was reunited with his mother after being separated for two months in May, July 16, 2018. The family is now suing the U.S. government after they say the boy was bullied in the Chicago shelter. HIs injuries were so bad that his head was “cracked open” and he needed staples. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Asig-Putul is being represented on a pro bono basis by Dallas LePierre of Nexus Derechos Humanos, a Virginia-based civil rights group providing legal services to at least 58 children and parents who were separated at the border.

“The individual who looked the other way when that abuse was happening. The individual who when they saw Geremy laying in a pool of his own blood threw a towel at him and said, ‘Clean yourself up,’ needs to be held responsible,” said Nexus CEO Mike Donovan.

According to the complaint, children at the shelter were separated at night by age, leaving Geremy to share the room with four other children. During the day all children 13 and under were free to mingle and were supervised together.

“A lot of the kids picked on me, but specifically one mean one,” Geremy told a Herald reporter. “They called me names. When I would tell the staff they would tell me to stop complaining. They also told me they were tired of my requests and didn’t want to see me anymore.

“At 11 every morning, the children would be provided classes, an hour of recess, and a snack period. In the early hours, only one employee would supervise. Come the afternoon, two more would join,” the complaint said.

“M.A. had been involved in a violent altercation with another child two weeks prior to the assault on [Geremy],” the complaint said, noting that the older boy had been away from his parents for at least nine months. “M.A. was not disciplined for that assault nor separated from other children.”

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Geremy, an 11-year-old boy talks to the media after he was reunited with his mother, Otila Asig-Putul, after being separated for two months at the U.S.-Mexico border as they tried to enter the country illegally in May, July 16, 2018. The family is now suing the U.S. government after they say the boy was bullied in the Chicago shelter. HIs injuries were so bad that his head was “cracked open” and he needed staples. CHARLES TRAINOR JR ctrainor@miamiherald.com

“M.A. was known to be violent towards other children and to be bullying other children,” the lawsuit says, noting that “[Geremy] had been bullied by more than one child. On at least two occasions, M.A. threatened other kids that he would take vengeance on them and would hit them if they messed with him.”

According to Geremy, the supervisors repeatedly told him to “stop complaining” when he talked about requesting to speak with his aunt, who lives in Miami Beach and was planning to house the duo.

“Despite being known to the Defendants to be aggressive and violent, and despite knowing [Geremy] was being bullied by an older child, the defendants placed M.A. in W.A.’s room on or about May 28,” the complaint chronicled.

The next afternoon, Geremy was looking out the window of the room when M.A. walked in. M.A. headed for W.A. and tripped him, causing W.A. to fall and hit his head on the metal bed frame, the lawsuit described.

“I fell so hard on my head. When I touched it, I thought it was water but I was soaked in blood,” Geremy told the Miami Herald. “What happened next made me cry so much.

Said the lawsuit: “A staff member tossed a towel to [Geremy] and told him to clean himself up.”

Later, an employee brought him ice and still later he was taken to a nearby hospital where the wound was sealed with Dermabond and three staples.

The U.S. Border Patrol released video of a brief tour they gave reporters inside a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, where it holds families arrested at the southern U.S. border. The video shows adult and children housed in cages.

“No MRI, CT, or X-Ray scans were taken of W.A.’s head. W.A. was also never given any Tylenol or other pain medication for this injury,” the complaint said. “[Geremy] was then placed back in the facility in which he had been assaulted, in the company of his assailant.”

Asig-Putul gently rubbed her son’’s head as Geremy cried.

He said the shelter was dirty and “filled with mean people, except for two friends that I made. I had to clean lots of bathrooms. I didn’t get to talk to my mom for 45 days,” he said.

Almost a minute of silence filled the room. The pause was accompanied by strong tears and clenched fists.

“I was made fun of, terrorized. I felt so alone.”

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