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Univision 41 Investiga

Univision 41 Investiga exposes how a youth counselor sexually abused an undocumented boy at a federally-funded shelter

At government-funded shelters for undocumented immigrants in New York, sexual crimes against kids are kept secret from the public. We expose one of them.
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10 Jul 2019 – 08:46 AM EDT

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At a federally-sponsored facility housing undocumented migrant children in New York, an adult youth counselor sexually preyed on a scrawny Honduran boy under his care -- a crime that has been kept secret from the public for two years and is now being exposed by Univision 41 Investiga.

Miguel Cutignola told the desperate boy -- who had been separated from his family for four years -- that he would “sponsor” the kid to get him out of government immigration detention, according to the shelter’s internal inquiry of the incident. Cutignola quietly pled guilty to a “criminal sexual act” last month.

But at his upcoming sentencing in court, Cutignola is expected to receive no prison time for his crime.

Were it not for this investigation by Univision Noticias 41 New York, Cutignola’s predatory actions against a vulnerable teenage boy -- and his surprisingly lenient punishment -- would remain under wraps. And the public would not know that this took place at MercyFirst, one of many privately-run shelters that receive funding to care for migrant children who cross the US-Mexico border seeking asylum.

“It’s not fair. Ten years of probation is not enough. He needs to be in jail, because what he did to this boy… it traumatized him,” said Margarita Rodriguez, an aunt who now has custody of the child. “I don’t think it’s fair at all.”

The revelation of this boy’s abuse comes amid broader calls for scrutiny into the mistreatment of migrant children at border detention camps, where children have been denied access to adequate food, medicine, toothpaste, and beds.

Univision 41 Investiga approached Cutignola outside of his home on a weekday morning last month, but he refused to answer our questions. “Why are you recording?” he said twice, then closed his SUV door and sped off.

His victim is still underage and has been relocated to Washington State by his aunt, who spoke to Univision 41 Investiga about the boy’s trauma. We have given him a pseudonym: Juan. Some details about his troubled past have been pieced together by reviewing documents only available at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, where Juan would one day file a habeas corpus lawsuit begging the government to let him free.

A boy’s journey to the U.S.

Juan was born in Honduras in 2001. His mother died when he was four years old, after which “a series of adults” began to sexually abuse him, according to his habeas corpus lawsuit. Juan remembers that his father was physically abusive to him and repeatedly raped his older sister. The dad was killed by gangs when Juan turned nine -- just as Honduras became the murder capital of the world.

After enduring years of abuse and violence, Juan -- then 11 -- decided to flee the country with his sister and brave the trek north through Guatemala and Mexico in an attempt to seek asylum in the United States. The pair presented themselves at the border in November 2013, at which point brother and sister were separated by the US government, the habeas corpus lawsuit claimed. Juan was placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is supposed to place children in group homes as a temporary measure as it seeks to unite kids with family member sponsors in the United States.

Juan immediately made clear his desire to live with family members already here: his maternal grandmother or either of his aunts, according to the habeas corpus lawsuit. He was still reeling from years of untreated mental and emotional trauma and sought the safety and familiarity of relatives. But the family wasn’t able to take him in, his aunt told us during interviews. Juan’s grandmother already had her hands full with four other kids under her care. Another aunt who offered to sponsor him died in a car crash on an icy road to work in Omaha, Nebraska in February 2015. And so, the government kept this boy in custody for four years, bouncing him between foster family placement and six different shelters in Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Texas. As Juan’s condition worsened, he became angry and developed disruptive behavioral issues, according to the lawsuit. When he told one foster family that he contemplated suicide, he was pulled away from them and placed under restrictive detention, according to the lawsuit.

According to court records, the one bright moment in all these years came when his aunt Margarita Rodriguez decided to start the sponsorship process and came to visit him for two days at the MercyFirst shelter in New York in the fall of 2016. It was the first time he’d seen a family member in person in two years. Soon after, Juan’s stability improved enough that he was placed in a less-restricted housing situation, a sensitive dormitory for extremely fragile children on the delicate road toward recovery.

It was here that Juan met “Mr. Miguel.”

Mr. Miguel

Miguel Reyes arrived in the United States from El Salvador as a child and grew up on Long Island, according to government documents and Univision interviews with his friends. After high school, he became a roving manager at several Wendy’s fast food restaurants until he was fired for repeatedly stealing from the register, according to several former coworkers. He married in 2016 and took on his husband’s last name, Cutignola.

In early 2017, Cutignola sought a position as a youth support counselor at MercyFirst. The shelter started as a Catholic orphanage and now operates on a 64-acre campus on the outskirts of the wealthy Long Island hamlet of Syosset. The nonprofit is always looking for energetic staff to help with the many troubled children. It recently described the job this way: “Youth Workers fulfill a vital role for our young people. They watch and learn from you. As they grow to know you, they begin to connect with you. They begin to trust. They begin to heal.”

Cutignola and his husband underwent a background check with New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services that would verify neither of them had any sordid history of abusing children. Cutignola got the job, and in the first week of April, took more than 6 ½ hours of mandatory courses with titles like, “Identifying Sexual Predators,” and “Boundaries for Youth Service Counselors,” according to internal records obtained by Univision 41 Investiga. He began to work the midnight shift, usually on weekends, keeping a written log that documented that the boys under his care were safe and asleep. Following the group home’s protocol, the kids would call him “Mr. Miguel.”

As MercyFirst makes clear in public posts and internal corporate documents, the shelter demands that its youth counselors take extensive training so that they are supportive and caring toward the kids. In some cases, the goal is to give these boys and girls “the first safe place they’ve lived.” Prospective counselors are advised: “The children in our residential treatment center have emotional and psychiatric issues. Most have suffered devastating loss...helping our children get stabilized and stay stabilized is the key to them having a good future.”

It’s unclear when exactly Cutignola, then 24, started to prey on Juan, then 15. A subsequent investigation would discover that Cutignola engaged in inappropriate behavior with the boy all throughout the month of June 2017, according to Nassau County District Attorney records.

But a Sunday night changed everything.

It was July 2, 2017, just before midnight. Cutignola waited for his coworker, Juana del Carmen López Pérez, to finish her evening shift before he walked to Juan’s bedroom doorway. Internal surveillance footage recorded when he left his post. Cutignola had been assigned to the graveyard shift in another unit of the campus, but he made his way to the Gillies Unit living quarters anyway. Cutignola and Juan began to talk -- and unbeknownst to them, Juan’s roommate lied awake under the covers, listening to it all. What follows is the roommate’s account of that night’s events, as told in handwritten notes by MercyFirst staff we obtained:

Cutignola asked if the pair were the only ones awake in the room. Juan assured him the roommate was asleep.

“I have a partner, but I left him,” the youth counselor told the boy. It was a lie.

“Can we get married?” Juan responded.

“Yes, once you turn 18. I can sponsor you,” Cutignola offered.

“It’s been a while since we last did it,” Juan said.

“It has been. Do you remember when?” Cutignola asked.

“Yes, in the bathroom,” the boy said.

“But there are cameras,” Cutignola said, then paused. “Take your clothes off if you really want to.”

At that moment, the phone rang outside the room and Cutignola quickly left. When he came back, the boy asked to use the counselor’s personal cell phone. Cutignola gave it to him and said, “If we do it this time, it would be our third time… I’m going to let you borrow my phone, but if I get in trouble, I’m going to kill you. I don’t want to lose any job just because you want to do this with me.”

The roommate, still under the covers, heard what he thought was kissing. Then Juan said, “You’re going too fast. You need to slow it down.”

The Nassau County police case file, which we also obtained, show still images of surveillance footage that document how Cutignola left his station and entered Juan’s room more than a dozen times that night. When Cutignola returned to his desk, he filled out the staffer’s log, every half hour repeating in bubbly text: “(7) resident in unit... same status above! (7) Boys appear to be asleep! -- MC."

Cutignola’s entries that morning end with: “Shift summary - shift went well, nothing major to report!”

The investigation

When “Ms. Carmen” returned to work on Monday, Juan’s roommate told her what happened. She immediately reported the incident to the company, according to internal notes at the nonprofit. At 4 pm that afternoon, another staffer took Juan to the campus medical office for a “body check.” When Juan finally realized why he was there, he nervously “denied any sexual contact” and had to be “reassured that he was not in trouble,” according to a staffer’s notes. The staffer walked out of the room. Now alone with the clinician, Juan acknowledged that there was some touching -- and that Cutignola “had made sexually oriented statements to him before.”

Nassau County police received a 911 “sexual abuse” call at 8:30pm that night. After officers arrived, Detective Joseph Rubino was sent there to investigate. MercyFirst informed ORR, the federal agency that then had custody over Juan, according to federal documents. Cutignola was placed on leave, according to company notes.

Late the next day, Juan was taken to Nassau University Medical Center and administered a rapekit, according to staff notes. Meanwhile, Cutignola and his husband took a ferry to Fire Island for a sunny Independence Day afternoon at the beach, according to private Facebook posts we obtained.

That evening, Juan returned to MercyFirst with the hospital having given him “a diagnosis of alleged child sexual abuse,” staff notes show. The FBI was notified about the incident, according to federal records at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Five days passed by until MercyFirst notified Juan’s aunt about the encounter, she said. And even then, the shelter wouldn’t give her any details, citing an ongoing investigation.

In the following weeks, the investigation proceeded slowly. When Nassau police requested a copy of the surveillance video, MercyFirst denied them access until detectives filled out a federal authorization form. A week later, the nonprofit’s senior vice president of human resources, Joanne Cordaro, issued an 11-page internal report that concluded MercyFirst should "consider terminating Staff Miguel Cutignola" because he “severely compromised his professional boundaries with resident.”

Three weeks after Juan’s diagnosis, Nassau police’s Special Victims Squad visited the boy and two staffers at MercyFirst. Detective Juan C. Girón interviewed Juan for half an hour, then came back days later to pick up shorts, underwear, and a sock from the boy as potential DNA evidence.

A Nassau police spokesman would later tell Univision 41 Investiga: “As with any case, a thorough investigation has to be done. In this case, victim and witness interviews took time.”

Cutignola was arrested at his home at 11:10pm Thursday night on August 17. It had been 45 days since his predatory relationship with the boy was reported. According to the police case file, Cutignola “made several admissions” after being told he had a right to remain silent. He acknowledged having the boy perform oral sex on him, then performing oral sex on the boy, then having “anal sexual intercourse,” according to Detective Girón’s notes. While in custody, Cutignola called his mother, then his husband.

The very next day, Cutignola was released from Nassau County jail after his husband hired a bail bondsman to front the $20,000 bond. Vincent Cutignola assured he could pay back any borrowed money with his job as a preschool teacher. Meanwhile, Nassau Judge Darlene D. Harris ordered the disgraced youth counselor to stay away from the boy for the next year.

In the weeks that followed, no public mention was made of the sex crime -- or Cutignola’s arrest. Ostensibly, that’s because of New York State’s Civil Rights Law, which prohibits any government from sharing the identity of a victim. However, in effect, it also served to keep an embarrassing and distressing event about the abuse of an immigrant child out of the public’s consciousness.

The most notable news out of MercyFirst in those subsequent weeks came when Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, visited the Long Island campus in September and took part in an art therapy session with some of the kids.

“MercyFirst works with children who have been traumatized; grew up without parents; and teenagers who have lost hope for the future,” Pence said, according to a White House statement of the events the time.

The next week, Cutignola -- now a server at a pizza shop -- celebrated his 25th birthday at a restaurant with family and friends. Juan remained at the shelter against his will, still waiting to be reunited with his aunt, Rodriguez.

As the months passed by, Juan grew desperate. With the help of the New York Civil Liberties Union, days before Christmas he filed a lawsuit against ORR demanding to be released. The habeas corpus lawsuit detailed how the government had repeatedly ignored recommendations by psychiatrists and case managers that Juan should be allowed to join his family. Had the government approved it, Juan would never have met the youth counselor who preyed on him.

On December 30, 2017, Juan was released to his aunt.

Plea deal

The case against Cutignola seemed to stall for months. The police ordered DNA test came back negative. Lab technicians only found traces of the boy’s genetic material. Then on September 24, 2018, a grand jury in Nassau County indicted Cutignola on four counts of “criminal sex act” for taking advantage of a child under his direct supervision (a third degree felony), as well as two counts of “endangering the welfare of a child.” Cutignola got a court-appointed defense attorney, Patrick O’Connell.

Around that time, the Nassau County’s DA’s office had a recommended sentence: three years in prison and five years post-release supervision, according to documents we obtained. But as negotiations moved forward, the DA’s office disclosed that another one of the kids at the shelter claimed the allegations against Cutignola were made up.

On June 4, 2019, Cutignola signed a plea deal admitting that he “engaged in oral sexual conduct” with Juan, according to a copy marked “Confidential - not to be made available for inspection” that was obtained by Univision 41 Investiga.

In return, he was promised a sentence no harsher than 10 years’ probation -- and forced registration as a sex offender.

The Nassau District Attorney’s Office said it “took into account the wishes and well-being of the person that was victimized” and that Cutignola “has been held accountable.”

“This plea spared the teenager from having to testify in front of the person that victimized him, and we’ve spared the child a potentially traumatizing and degrading cross-examination. With this plea, the defendant, will be supervised for the next ten years by the probation department and will be registered as a sex offender,” the DA’s office said in a statement.

Cutignola’s defense attorney did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Cutignola is now scheduled to be sentenced on July 23 in Nassau Supreme Court before Judge Robert A. McDonald.

There are others

It’s unclear how many other incidents there have been at MercyFirst. But a document released by U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch of South Florida, who has advocated for better treatment of unaccompanied minors, shows that allegations of at least two other incidents occurred at that facility in recent years. One sexual abuse case was reported to the Department of Justice in May 2017, just two months before Cutignola was caught. Another was reported in May 2018. No details have been made public about those incidents.

MercyFirst CEO Jeffrey McCaffery would not acknowledge any details about Cutignola’s case -- or the others. In an email to this reporter, he wrote: “Unfortunately, I cannot discuss the particulars of any child in our care or who has been in our care. Please know that MercyFirst has a zero-tolerance policy for any level of abuse or neglect – sexual, physical, and emotional - by anyone involving young people in our care. We are clear with our staff about the need to respect the privacy and boundaries of those they care for and those they work with.”

According to those disclosures by the US Health and Human Services Department, which runs ORR, there were 49 such abusive incidents across the country in fiscal year 2017 and 2018 involving staff members preying on detained kids.

But while some cases in other states have been made public -- such as molestation and groping attacks at shelters in Arizona -- cases in New York remain hidden from the public because of the state’s privacy law.

That means little is known about the specific allegations in recent years at the state’s privately-run, government-contracted shelters including Catholic Guardian Services, Cayuga Centers, The Children’s Village, Lincoln Hall Boys Haven, and Lutheran Social Services.

Juan’s future

Juan is now 17 years old and attending high school in a small city near the foothills of Washington State’s majestic Cascade Mountains. He’s the eldest member of his new family, and lately, his aunt said, he’s been showing promise. He recently made the honor roll, and he’s started talking about an interest in aeronautics. He dreams of joining the U.S. Army and someday, NASA. But his aunt has noticed that he spends most of his time alone in his room -- and Juan is deeply uncomfortable anytime he’s near an adult. He’s told he isn’t ready yet to speak about what happened, so she hasn’t taken him to a therapist.

“He’s very affected emotionally. He feels like everybody’s going to do something to him,” Rodriguez said. “What he went through -- he will have that always on his mind.”

Rodriguez, a single mother with kids of her own and a job that keeps her away from home 14 hours a day, said she’s now considering a lawsuit against MercyFirst and Cutignola but doesn’t have the funds. At the moment, her energy is being directed at something else: adopting Juan as her own son and getting him permanent legal status in the United States.

If you have any tips about other incidents at a shelter – or if want to tell us about your personal experience – please email this reporter or send him a message on WhatsApp: 201-983-9527.


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