Three members of U.S. Congress are demanding answers from the federal agency that detains undocumented immigrant children, as a direct result of Univision 41 Investiga’s recent exposé of sexual abuse at a New York shelter.
In a letter on Monday to the head of the U.S. Health and Human Services Department signed by Rep. Adriano Espaillat, Rep. Kathleen M. Rice, and Rep. Thomas R. Suozzi, the members of Congress said they have “deep and profound concerns of the operation, staffing, and oversight by [HHS] approved facilities that house and care for immigrant children.”
Last week, this local New York news station revealed how a 24-year-old youth counselor employed at MercyFirst, a private center funded by the federal government, sexually abused a 15-year-old Honduran boy under his care in 2017. Our investigation also revealed that the incident was never made public. The youth counselor, Miguel Cutignola, was fired and has pled guilty in state court to a sex crime, but he cut a deal to avoid prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced to 10 years of probation on July 23.
MercyFirst is one of several private institutions that receives funds from the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement to care for and detain undocumented immigrant children who sought safety in the United States and have been separated from their family – or who came alone and have yet to find a legal “sponsor.”
In their letter, the Congressmembers cited Univision 41’s investigation and demanded to know “what actions HHS has undertaken to ensure this never happens again.” The letter was addressed to HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar II, Assistant Secretary Lynn Johnson, and the former ORR director Scott Lloyd.
Espaillat, Rice, and Suozzi requested “a full and thorough briefing” from the federal agency to more closely examine how MercyFirst responded to the incident, steps taken by the federal government to improve background checks and staff training, and proof that Cutignola is now a registered sex offender in New York.
The letter also cites a revelation from our investigation: that there are dozens of other incidents of staff sexually abusing undocumented children at government-contracted shelters. “One incident is unacceptable; 49 is unconscionable,” the letter stated.