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Univision 41 Investiga

Sentencing delayed for counselor who sexually abused undocumented teenager at government shelter

Cutignola admitted in court that he abused the teen, who was under his care while working at MercyFirst. A judge put the brakes on the sentencing, scheduled for Tuesday, because the victim's relatives no longer agree with the proposed ruling that the suspect would only get 10 years probation.
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23 Jul 2019 – 04:13 PM EDT

A New York State judge on Tuesday hit the brakes on the scheduled sentencing of a former youth counselor who admitted to sexually abusing an undocumented teenage boy under his care, days after it became clear the victim's family no longer agreed with the sentence the abuser was going to receive.

Miguel Cutignola was fired in 2017 from MercyFirst, a shelter on Long Island that receives federal funds to care for and detain undocumented migrant kids. It was there that he, then 24, preyed on a vulnerable 15-year-old who had already been traumatized by abusive family members in Honduras.

The case was investigated by Nassau County police and is being prosecuted by the Nassau District Attorney's Office. The incident was not made public until an investigation by Univision 41 Investiga that revealed Cutignola pled guilty and cut a deal to receive 10 years of probation instead of prison.

On Tuesday morning, Nassau Supreme Court Judge Robert McDonald held a private conference with the prosecutor and Cutignola's defense lawyer, then held a public hearing detailing what they had discussed.

The judge said Cutignola's expected sentencing was being delayed despite "extensive conferencing and plea negotiations," because the victim's "family is not on board" now with Cutignola's proposed sentence. He asked the prosecutor to once again speak to the boy, now 17 and living with his aunt in Washington State. The next hearing is scheduled for August 23.

The original plea deal would avoid a trial and spare the boy from having to testify in front of his abuser. The decision was made out of "a desire to not revictimize the victim," Judge McDonald said.

Cutignola refused to speak after Tuesday's hearing. His assigned public defense lawyer, Patrick O' Connell, declined to comment.

Our report highlighted one of 12 known cases in New York of sexual abuse against undocumented kids by the employees of government-funded shelters who are supposed to watch over them.

These children were all in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an agency within the Health and Human Services Department. Children who are apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are held at these shelters while the federal government attempts to place them with family members who will sponsor them. These shelters are not the detention camps in which children wrapped in foil blankets are held in cages, rather, they are specialized foster care centers that treat abused kids.

Following our report about Cutignola's case, three members of U.S. Congress wrote a letter demanding answers from HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar II. Representatives Adriano Espaillat, Kathleen M. Rice, and Thomas R. Suozzi expressed “deep and profound concerns of the operation, staffing, and oversight by [HHS] approved facilities that house and care for immigrant children.”

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