No One Knows How Many Immigrant Kids Have Disappeared in US Custody

On the fifth floor of the tall glass federal building in Portland, Oregon, the immigration court hums in hushed tones, an air of reverence coming from a dozen or so fidgety children and teenagers. They sit in two long pews that line the back of the room, facing the elevated bench of the immigration judge.

A massive Department of Justice seal towers over the bench, flanked by giant windows that allow a glimpse of the downtown skyline. At one table, an attorney representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement faces the judge. Every 10 minutes or so, a new young client makes their way around the table, ready to face the full brunt of the U.S. immigration system. Not one is here with an adult family member. Each time, an attorney steps forward to represent them. Sometimes it’s the same attorney for several clients in a row. The room feels prim, almost quaint, dissonant for a space in which each decision can mean the difference between life and death.

On this cold afternoon in January, there is one girl in particular I’ve come here to see.

The girl, now 17, has been in U.S. immigration custody since she was 10 years old. Since presenting herself at the border and seeking asylum in late 2013, she has been separated from her family, shuttled back and forth between shelters and foster homes across the United States, from Oregon to Massachusetts to Texas to Florida, and back to Texas and Oregon again, from what I’ve been able to piece together.

She’s become a long-term resident of what’s supposed to be a short-term system. I wonder if she’s ever had a friend for more than a few months, if she’s gotten a real education, if she’s learned to speak English. I wonder when she last got a hug from anyone who loves her.

What I do know is that, after all these years, she wants out. She’s come to court today to try and deport herself from the United States.

Her case is up first. Dressed neatly in a lace-trimmed blouse with her hair pulled back, the girl stands up from the second row of seats and timidly makes her way toward the respondent’s table. She takes a seat next to her attorney and puts her headphones on so that an interpreter can help her make sense of the proceedings. Now, she seems excited.

Judge Richard M. Zanfardino reads out her name.

“Yes,” she confirms. “Sí.”

The judge notes that a letter from the girl’s child advocate, whom the government has previously appointed to look out for her best interests, supports her request to leave the United States, but with four recommendations. He doesn’t list them all in court, but he addresses one in particular. While ICE standards call for the agency to provide up to a 30-day supply of medications to people who are being deported, the advocate has recommended that ICE provide the girl with a 60-day supply.

The ICE attorney asks for time to consider the recommendations. But the girl’s attorney, Caryn Crosthwait, says her client wants to leave the country as soon as possible and rejects any proposal to extend the departure request.

Judge Zanfardino points out that he can’t order ICE to do anything and can only encourage the agency to make its best efforts. It’s true: Immigration judges lack the autonomy of criminal and civil court judges; while they can administer oaths and interrogate witnesses, they cannot always order immigration authorities to take a particular action. Whether she would be sent away with a two-month supply of medications was entirely up to ICE.

The entire proceeding lasts around 20 minutes. At the end, Judge Zanfardino gives the 17-year-old what she came here for.

“You’ve been granted the voluntary departure request that your attorney filed on your behalf,” he tells her.

The girl is clearly elated. She’s grinning from ear-to-ear as she stands and turns to face the two rows of seats behind her, which are dotted with other children here for their own hearings. Then she steps outside of the courtroom to confer with her attorney.

But there is something the girl doesn’t know, that I’ve just recently learned. She still has a family in the United States, and they want her home. It’s unlikely that I’ll get to talk with the girl, but her family has given me a message for her just in case. An hour or so after the judge’s ruling, in the court’s elevator lobby, I manage to hand the girl a few pieces of paper, just as her chaperone is rushing her away from me.

“Take them,” I tell her in Spanish. She does.

Among the papers is a photograph of the relatives she hasn’t seen in more than six years. She sees the photo and makes a hard stop.

“Son ellas,” she says to her chaperone. It’s them — her family.

She looks back at me bewildered, as if asking me to help her make sense of this almost impossible moment in the dull lobby. The last time the girl saw most of her relatives was in 2013, before the government rendered her and her brother unaccompanied minors. She was separated from him less than a year and a half later, for reasons I haven’t been able to figure out. She has, on rare occasions, spoken with her brother by phone, but she’s lost contact with everyone else in the family photo I’ve just handed her. The women who raised her have told me they were never informed of the sister and brother’s separation within the system.

The child I encountered in court that day is one of an unknown number of kids who have simply disappeared into the U.S. immigration system — specifically, into the bowels of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, the federal agency charged with the care and reunification of unaccompanied minors. I’ve tried to get that figure through records requests and have been stonewalled; Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting is currently suing the government under the Freedom of Information Act. From conversations with attorneys and current and former shelter staff, a report from the California Attorney General, and from a partial list obtained from ORR, I’ve found evidence that at least seven kids were in the system for at least two years — far longer than the two or three months ORR’s director has told Congress is the average length of stay. That partial list, obtained from ORR through a previous public records lawsuit filed by Reveal, indicates one boy was held for more than three years. A declaration in a federal lawsuit was written by a girl who’d been in the system for four years. And the ORR list indicates another boy was in the system for five years before being discharged.

There are laws, rules and legal settlements guiding ORR’s handling of children that I had assumed would prevent something like this from happening. But I have learned through my reporting that the government can pretty much do whatever it wants. It can take a child from their family without explanation. It can detain a child indefinitely.

The girl’s story would have likely gone unknown outside of a few case managers and lawyers had I not come across a scrap of information a few months ago: A child had been in the system for six years, longer than any case I’d heard of. A girl from Honduras. I didn’t have much else to go on other than her full name and the name of the town where she grew up, but was told she had mentioned the first name of an aunt who had raised her.

I knew that it was ORR policy not to speak to reporters about any individual child’s case. So I set out to find that aunt on my own, to see if she could help me piece together the girl’s story. I searched on Facebook for women in Honduras, then in Mexico and the United States, going through hundreds of searches. But she had a pretty common name, and I came up dry. So I started searching for anyone with the girl’s last name who lived in the small town where she grew up. And I finally stumbled upon a very distant relative who remembered something about a girl who’d gone to the United States and then went missing. And that person knew the aunt.

It turns out the aunt wasn’t in Honduras. She was living in rural North Carolina, where I reached her by phone. She told me she was the girl’s sponsor, that she had put together all the paperwork to reunify the family and take custody of both the girl and her brother all the way back in 2013. But she never got the kids. She didn’t know why. Then, one day, less than a year and a half later, she couldn’t get in contact with them anymore. No one answered the phone number she usually dialed to connect with the kids, which belonged, she thought, to their case worker or case manager. And she said she never got a call from that number again.

All these years, the girl didn’t know what had happened to her family. And the family didn’t know what had happened to their girl.

Now I could see why the girl might have chosen what’s known as voluntary departure. I could see how her expectation of being reunified with her family might have turned into anger and hopelessness. I could see her choosing freedom — any kind of freedom — after being held in custody for nearly half her life.

No one from ORR; no case manager or advocate or attorney had informed the family about the girl’s court date or her desire to self-deport. Her family found out from me, and I’d only found out about the hearing a day before it took place, some six weeks after I first spoke with her aunt.

Katharine Gordon, an immigration attorney who worked as a child advocate between 2015 and 2017, told me that while a birth parent would usually be told about a child’s decision to choose voluntary departure, there was little clarity about whether another family member serving as a sponsor, like the girl’s aunt, would typically be notified.

Fearful of traveling to immigration court and even more fearful of government agents, case workers and attorneys, the family hoped that my reporting would lead me to their girl. They had a message they wanted me to share if I got the chance: That they missed her. That they hoped they would see one another soon. And that she shouldn’t sign any deportation papers because they wanted her back — not back in their hometown in Honduras, but with them in North Carolina.

They were terrified about what would happen to her if she was sent back to Honduras.

The message might have been too late: Judge Zanfardino had just granted her deportation request. She’s required to leave soon. Maybe ICE will put her on a plane today, maybe they’ll do so next week.

But Judge Zanfardino ruled that she must leave, to a place she hardly even knows, no later than May 15.

Weeks before I attended the girl’s court hearing, my early conversations by phone with the aunt were bundled with emotion. Some of it was confusion. How could I, a stranger, have any information about the child she had raised? A lot of what I heard was sheer sorrow.

She told me about how Doña Amalia, the kids’ grandmother and matriarch of the family, has prayed daily during all of these long years, both for the children’s safety and for the family to find out what happened. She began to tell me why the family had left Honduras to begin with. It started with the story of Santos, one of her sons.

Like other family members, Santos crossed and recrossed multiple borders to get to the United States from Honduras, back when it was much easier to do so undetected in the late 1990s and early aughts. As a teenager and into his mid-20s, he worked painting houses in North Carolina and sent money to family back home in Honduras, across the same borders he’d crossed himself.

By 2005 Santos was in his late 20s and had found something much more lucrative than painting houses: dealing cocaine. The following year, he was sentenced to prison in North Carolina for drug trafficking. He was eventually deported to Honduras in early 2012. He had just turned 35 and was welcomed back home to their rural hillside community. He reconnected with the girl, whom he’d previously met when she was still a baby, and met his other cousin, the girl’s brother, for the first time.

By this time, the girl had grown into a spirited and inquisitive child who enjoyed helping others with whatever task they were working on. Family members describe her as deeply affectionate.

The aunt calls it one of the happiest times of her life: Her son was finally back home. Later that spring, they all got to spend Mother’s Day together.

He’d be dead a week later.

Honduras — a country smaller than the state of Louisiana — had the world’s highest rate of homicide in 2012. Santos was one of more than 7,000 people killed there that year when he was gunned down while driving his truck, the one he used for his burgeoning lumber business, hauling fresh cuts to market. His killers lit his vehicle on fire and bystanders dragged Santos’ body out.

As the family made plans to bury the body, they also started to map their escape. They had gotten threats of violence before. But they no longer felt simply like threats — now it seemed they could materialize into sexual assault or death without further warning.

Over the course of the next year, Doña Amalia, her two daughters, several grandchildren and a great-granddaughter, Dayani, all found their way to the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. From there, Doña Amalia supervised the sale of the family’s cows and other family possessions. What they couldn’t sell they gave away.

The family used the money from the sale of the livestock to get to Mexico — some to Chiapas and others to Mexico City — a final stop before heading to the United States in small groups to claim asylum. They arrived at the U.S. border during the first year of President Barack Obama’s second term.

Doña Amalia and the aunt went a few months ahead of the rest of the family so that they could set up a home to welcome the others in rural North Carolina, where several family members already lived, most working in painting and construction. Santos himself had lived there, part of a growing community with ties to Honduras.

Doña Amalia and her daughter presented themselves to immigration officials at the border so they could claim asylum. They told officials they were fleeing violence, passed their initial screening, and were released by Customs and Border Protection ahead of an unscheduled immigration court date. Then they made their way to North Carolina and found a place to live.

The girl and the boy then arrived at the border with another aunt and cousin, and likewise told officials they were seeking asylum, according to documents the aunt in North Carolina was given when she filed to be the children’s sponsor.

Family members said the four were first placed in a holding cell. It wasn’t too cold, as some holding cells are, and everyone was given aluminum blankets to cover themselves if needed. Within a few hours, the girl and her brother were taken away. The aunt and her daughter stayed behind and were ultimately released.

Records indicate the children were moved to the custody of ORR and into the care of a contractor called Morrison Child & Family Services in Portland, Oregon, in November 2013. They were placed in a program called Micasa, which specialized in short-term foster care for unaccompanied minors under the age of 14. The girl was 10 and her brother was 8.

If the government can’t place children with a birth parent, it is ORR policy for shelter staff to find other relatives in the country who are fit to care for them. The family expected a short separation but was sure that the children would be with them within a few months, which government data show is about average.

ORR classifies minors into four tiers for reunification: Category 1 applies to children who have a parent or legal guardian, such as a stepparent, in the United States. Children in category 2 have immediate relatives such as an aunt, a grandparent or a cousin. Category 3 is for children with a sponsor who is a distant relative or an unrelated adult. Children with no sponsor are placed in category 4.

While ORR would not comment on how the children were formally categorized, their aunt in North Carolina seeking sponsorship would appear to put the boy in category 2, and the girl, because she is a stepchild, in either 2 or 3.

All sponsors have to prove they’re suitable in the eyes of ORR by agreeing to an extensive background check, and the children’s aunt was deeply engaged in that process.

She said every time a case worker or case manager made a new request, she fulfilled it: birth certificates from Honduras that required the help of people in the U.S. and Honduras, address confirmation for her new place in North Carolina, proof of her $11-an-hour wage for her construction job, with which she would financially support the children. The aunt had just arrived to a new country in the wake of the gruesome murder of her son, but said she did everything that was asked of her.

First through texts and later in person, family members provided me with some of these documents, along with other communications that confirm the federal government had identified the aunt as the children’s sponsor.

A fax dated Aug. 15, 2014, says that then-Morrison case manager Yesenia Avalos sent a security plan, which included guidelines for the children’s release and resources that would be available afterward. The document indicates the government was, at this time, anticipating the release of the children to the family. Morrison spokesperson Patricia DiNucci wouldn’t comment on the children’s cases or their time at Morrison and declined the opportunity to answer general questions about Morrison’s policies related to staff communication with sponsors.

“Please take the time to review and read the documents,” reads the cover page, in the aunt’s native language of Spanish.

The aunt said she reviewed the security plan with other family members, signed in agreement, and sent it back by fax. Three days later, Avalos sent over background check forms, which were also completed and signed by the family, and later shared with me.

The aunt said she was able to talk with the children from time to time throughout this first year, usually by video call. Over the course of those calls, while the children were living with their first foster family, the Honduran family began to see the girl change. She told them that the foster family’s rules were too strict and she longed to be back with the family she knew and loved.

Daisy Camacho-Thompson, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and one of the authors of a policy brief on the effects of family separation, said that 10-year-olds, on the cusp of adolescence, are especially vulnerable to stress.

“It is harmful to children to be separated from a caring adult at any point during development,” Camacho-Thompson said. “That said, because adolescence is a sensitive period in human development, trauma during this time can have long-term physical, psychological, and physiological effects, impacting cognitive and emotional development.”

She said that transitions — like migrating to a new country or even moving to a new school — are tough for kids. Family support can help cushion the impact, but family separation during periods of significant change can expose children to what researchers call “toxic stress” that can result in long-term negative effects. The longer a child is separated, Camacho-Thompson said, the worse the outcomes are for that child.

As the children were approaching a year in the refugee agency’s custody, their aunt held out hope that they’d be reunited. During this period, other children in the family who’d arrived at the border had already been processed through the system and released to other family members. The aunt believed that it was still just a matter of time.

But the siblings weren’t released. Instead, they were transferred to another foster care program.

The family is unsure of when it started, but around this time the girl began to tell them that she was cutting herself; her grandmother recalls that it was the tender skin on the inside of her arms. On the video calls, she told the family she hated life without them and wanted to end hers out of desperation. One time, she rammed her head into a wall, busting it open so badly she required a brief hospitalization. Her aunt and grandmother learned this from her, after the fact; they said they were never notified by ORR. And they said their child had never harmed herself before coming to the United States.

The girl wasn’t only hospitalized for self-injurious behavior. Doña Amalia and other family members recall that the girl had an operation that may have been a tonsillectomy, another procedure they learned about only afterward. The family said they weren’t informed about it by ORR or given the chance to opt the girl out. They said they likely wouldn’t have opposed the procedure, but said case workers who were in communication with the family never informed them or gave them options when it came to medical decisions.

Gordon, the immigration attorney, told me that’s not uncommon. “I wasn’t aware of any policy that required consent,” she told me.

With the girl’s situation deteriorating, in early 2015, the process fell apart. They stopped getting calls from anyone associated with the girl’s case. And their calls weren’t being answered. The family wouldn’t hear from the two children again — or hear anything about them — for five years.

They said they called and called the phone number that had previously connected them to the children. For months, there was no answer. Eventually, the line was disconnected. A few of the children’s records were lost as the family moved around North Carolina, and some were ruined in a flood in 2016. But several were carefully saved in two plastic bags, and in one I found a document with phone numbers related to the girl’s former case worker. One was out of service. Another had a new user who’s unrelated to the federal shelter system.

There are some circumstances in which the government will decide not to place children with their sponsors, such as when ORR discovers that a family member has a history of abuse or a criminal record. If that happened in this case, I’ve been unable to find a record of it. And the family was never told. They recalled no phone call, letter or any communication that explained why the government didn’t release the children to them.

It’s true that the girl isn’t related to her aunt and grandmother by blood. The girl’s mother gave birth to her before getting involved with Doña Amalia’s son, the boy’s father. But the girl was raised in Doña Amalia’s household in Honduras, just like her brother, and was part of the family. Even if this detail mattered to ORR — and the family says they were forthcoming about it — it could only have shifted the girl from category 2 to category 3. And the sponsorship process had appeared to be well underway until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

For Doña Amalia, thoughts about her grandchildren have been constant and all-consuming since they disappeared into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
For Doña Amalia, thoughts about her grandchildren have been constant and all-consuming since they disappeared into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Every morning and every night, Doña Amalia prays for her two grandchildren. It’s the very first thing she does when she makes her way out of bed to put a pot on for coffee. And it’s the last thing she does before she lies down to rest at the end of the day. Everyone in the family pines for the children, but at 94, Doña Amalia is the one most worried she’ll never see them again.

It’s not like Doña Amalia didn’t try to find out what happened. She said she petitioned God every day.

“I’d ask, are they dead? How are they, my God? How must those children be? Suffering? Naked? Hungry?”

Other family members had come into contact with case managers like Yesenia Avalos, but no one helped them get their children back. They didn’t know who to turn to and became increasingly scared that they might be targeted for deportation themselves.

The family was petrified of the government — not just of government officials, but also of everyone in the whole shelter system.

For the aunt and other family members, a system that disappeared two children would most certainly disappear adults, too. Disappear them into immigration detention. Disappear them back to Honduras to face almost certain death. Or disappear them into the jaws of the unknown, just like their children.

So they prayed. And cried. And waited.

Doña Amalia made a point to name under whose leadership this happened: Obama. “They let us in,” she said. “But they took our children.”

Doña Amalia doesn’t only think about the children on holidays and birthdays. For the matriarch, thoughts about the children are constant and all-consuming.

Tending to her hens meant thinking about how the girl used to help with the chickens back in Honduras. Putting on a pot of beans for the day would summon memories of the boy eating lunch. Taking a walk would remind her of how much the children loved to stroll the coffee fields that surrounded their childhood home. Every detail of her day evoked the children. After years of thinking about them, the girl and the boy became the permanent backdrop to her way of being.

Her husband was killed in a brawl decades ago. Her grandson was shot and set on fire. She’s known hunger and experienced deep poverty. She’s lived through violence, and threats of violence. She may dwell upon those traumas from time to time, but she said their presence pales in the face of her constant thoughts about the children.

Doña Amalia has other grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and spending time with them brings her clear joy. But the mystery of what happened to her two missing grandchildren weighs on her. “It’s as if they were dead. We knew nothing. Nothing,” she said.

For the family, this isn’t separation. For them, these children were disappeared.

After I reached out to ask her about the girl, the aunt wanted to know something. If I was capable of locating her in North Carolina, and learning where the girl was in Oregon, was I capable of finding the boy inside the system?

It was unlikely. There are few public records about minors. Fine-toothing social media could help — but the boy’s name is so common that hundreds of children popped up on social as soon as I searched. I friended and sent messages to countless 14-year-olds with the same name who wished me luck but said they weren’t the person I was looking for. On Dec. 11, however, I was sure I had found the right kid. I located a phone number for him, we texted briefly and then I gave him a ring.

Yes, it was the boy. On the phone, he was surprised and suspicious but sweet. He’d been living with a foster family in Massachusetts for several years. Yes, the girl was his sister. And although he didn’t acknowledge it immediately, yes, his aunt and Doña Amalia in North Carolina were indeed the ones who raised him back in Honduras. He speaks Spanish, but was more comfortable in English. He rattled off his favorite and least favorite classes at school. He told me he felt loved and supported by his foster family and was happy with them. We hung up after saying we’d talk again.

“Can I call you tomorrow with my stepmom so we can keep talking more,” he texted me, adding that he had to get to sleep since it was a school night.

“All good,” I responded.

A couple of hours later, I heard from the woman who fosters the boy, the one whom he calls his stepmom. She was warm and communicated a clear concern and compassion for the child she says she’s been raising for around five years. There wasn’t too much she could share, but she had questions about whether what he had said to her was correct — if his family was really in North Carolina. I assured her that it was.

The boy gave me permission to let the family know about him, and I knew this was information I had to deliver in person. I printed out a stack of photos of the boy that I’d found online, cleared a date to meet with Doña Amalia, the aunt and Dayani in person, and booked a flight to North Carolina. I had something I wanted to share, I told them.

A week or so later, sitting on a sectional around a coffee table, with Christmas tree lights helping to illuminate the room, I handed the family photos of their boy. I wondered if they’d know who he was.

Silence gave way to sudden gasps.

“Look at him.”

“He has earrings!”

“He’s so big now.”

Through sobs, laughter and near disbelief, the family confirmed that this was their boy. He was a lot taller and thinner than they remembered him — a 14-year-old now, whom Doña Amalia hadn’t seen since he was 7 years old in Chiapas.

“And these photos?” asked Dayani, who is now 22. “Where is he, what state is he in?”“He’s in Massachusetts,” I told her.

“Have you spoken with him?”

“Yes,” I responded.

Using a tablet, I showed the family how I found him online, sharing more photos and videos he’s posted over time. I let the family know the boy and his foster mom had told me he was occasionally in touch with his sister.

In the coming days, the family would get in touch with the boy and learn that he was safe and sound. Their worries now were focused on the girl.

If I managed to talk to the girl, they told me over and over again, I had to deliver a message: That they loved her, they missed her and they wanted her to come home.

Doña Amalia holds some of the family’s immigration paperwork, which includes documents related to the family’s attempt to get her grandchildren out of U.S. custody.
Doña Amalia holds some of the family’s immigration paperwork, which includes documents related to the family’s attempt to get her grandchildren out of U.S. custody.

Last September, Jonathan Hayes, a Trump appointee who directs the Office of Refugee Resettlement, stood before a House subcommittee, raised his right hand in oath and proceeded to provide sworn testimony.

“I believe that a child should not remain in ORR care any longer than the time needed to find an appropriate sponsor,” he said, adding that the agency’s mission is to release children as soon as possible while also ensuring their safety. He also praised ORR’s efforts in reducing lengths of stay in custody.

“As of the end of August of this year, the average length of time that a child stays in HHS custody is approximately 50 days,” Hayes testified, “which is a dramatic decrease of over 40 percent from late November 2018, when the average length of care was 90 days.”

ORR spokesperson Lydia Holt would not tell me whether Hayes knew about the girl who’d been in custody more than 2,100 days on the day of his testimony, saying only that, “Cases are elevated to Director Hayes on an as-needed basis.”

Jonathan Hayes, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, gives testimony in the House of Representatives on September 19, 2019.
Jonathan Hayes, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, gives testimony in the House of Representatives on September 19, 2019.

But the six-year detention of this one Honduran child exposes a system far more inhumane than what Hayes described to Congress. And those years the girl has spent in federal custody have exposed her to almost all of its cruelty.

By all accounts, the girl didn’t like detention from the start. Morrison’s Micasa program, her first placement, was contracted by ORR at the time to provide transitional foster care for younger unaccompanied minors.

Like so many ORR contractors, Morrison has had its share of problems. During the girl’s approximately yearlong stay in Micasa, documents obtained through a federal records request by Judicial Watch indicate Morrison’s transitional foster program was the subject of multiple “significant incident reports” — critical events that triggered federal government reports. Several involved alleged child abuse, according to documents that I’ve reviewed. In July 2014, one girl claimed her foster family was physically and emotionally abusive. Less than three months later, a different child claimed his foster family restricted him to his bedroom. A few days after that, records indicate a child and a youth care worker reported that a staffer physically disciplined a child.

A girl's journey over six years in U.S. custody

In a 2018 declaration in federal court, a mother detailed how Morrison had failed to reunite her with her son. She said she was told by the Morrison case manager that she wouldn’t need to provide fingerprints. Later, it turned out, she did need to provide them, but the case manager had forgotten to tell her about her fingerprint appointment. She was later told her husband’s prints were lost. Meanwhile, her son was transferred to a shelter in Florida, grew ill and had to be hospitalized. According to the declaration, signed Feb. 6, 2018, “No one from Morrison or the government has given me more information about my son’s health, the studies, results or medical treatment he is receiving.” At the time of the filing, related to the Flores settlement guiding the federal government’s treatment of unaccompanied minors, the family had yet to be reunified; a federal filing indicates the boy was released shortly thereafter.

DiNucci, the Morrison spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment about these allegations.

Toward the end of October 2014, sources indicate, the girl, then 11, and the boy, then 9, were transferred to another foster home across the country in Massachusetts, this one run by Ascentria Care Alliance. Ascentria did not immediately respond to queries.

People familiar with the girl’s time in Massachusetts say something serious happened there that prompted the federal government to separate her from her brother in early 2015. That was the last time the girl was in the presence of a family member since she arrived in the United States. It was also right around this time, according to Dayani, Doña Amalia, and the girl’s aunt, that all contact with them ceased.

Rules governing the behavior of staff and residents in the federal shelter system stipulate that touching is strictly prohibited. If everyone’s followed the rules, then the girl hasn’t experienced a hug or even held someone’s hand in close to five years.

Research has shown that adolescence is a critical period when bonding and affection are critical to development.

“Think about all the things that you learned about how to be a human from the people who care about you during those ages,” said Camacho-Thompson, the child development researcher. “It doesn’t happen at 40 to 47, it happens at 10 to 17.”

The years during which the girl’s been isolated and alone make up the very period during which most adolescents are learning what it means to be a person in society.

“Trauma occurring while these skills are being built can lead to disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders,” Camacho-Thompson said. “Trauma during this period can affect the way we are wired.”

After the children were separated, the boy was placed into a new foster home in Massachusetts, the one where he remains today. But his sister was headed deeper into ORR’s system.

When children who are alone and detained experience behavioral problems, ORR sometimes sends them to therapeutic facilities like SandyPines Residential Treatment Center in Tequesta, north of Miami. Sources indicate that the girl spent four months there.

Her transfer there coincides with the period when the girl’s family says they lost contact. They do recall talking to her during a hospital stay, and SandyPines is known locally as a hospital, but it’s not clear if they talked to her while she was there. They remember hearing about Oregon and Massachusetts, but no one remembers her mentioning Florida.

The girl’s time at SandyPines was relatively brief. By July 2015, sources indicate, she’d be turned over to another treatment center, one that’s become synonymous with the forced drugging of unaccompanied minors.

The Shiloh Treatment Center is a collection of trailers and old homes in Manville, Texas. I’ve talked with children and family members involved with seven separate cases of child migrants detained at Shiloh.

Their accounts, and court documents, make Shiloh sound horrific. They say children were held down and forcibly drugged with powerful psychotropic medications. According to the affidavits, children were told they would not be released or see their parents unless they took their meds. One child was prescribed a powerful cocktail of daily medications, including an antipsychotic, an antidepressant and a Parkinson’s medication commonly used to treat the side effects of antipsychotics. The drugs rendered some children unable to walk, afraid of people and wanting to sleep constantly, court filings say.

There also have been a number of reports of violence and sexual assault.

For example, while the girl was there, local sheriff’s records indicate someone made a call from the facility to report a sexual assault. The call notes include notations that “kids all speak Spanish” and that, during an interview, a child said “they had another inappropriate relation with a staff member.” The Brazoria County Sheriff’s Office didn’t return calls for comment.

Just five days after the girl arrived at Shiloh, police received a call from someone who believed “there may be some physical abuse from a staffer,” police records show.

And six months before she arrived, police recorded a call from the facility. The caller said they wanted to alert authorities that according to a new federal mandate they had to report “all contact” between Shiloh residents and staff to law enforcement. The caller went on to say there had been “three incidents involving contact between (residents) and staff” but said “they are not wanting to pursue charges on anybody.” The record shows the call came from the phone number of Luis Valdez, then an administrator at Shiloh. Valdez didn’t respond to requests for comment. When I called Shiloh for comment, I was cut off and told to call ORR in Washington, D.C., before the person on the line hung up on me.

One year passed at Shiloh for the girl, during which she turned 13, sources indicate. Then another, and the girl turned 14. After about two years at Shiloh, in late 2017, the girl was once again transferred — this time to a shelter in New York.

The girl, sources indicate, spent about eight months at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Last year, the Inspector General of Health and Human Services issued a report which found an operation in disarray. “Children’s Village failed to meet or properly document that it had met certain requirements for the care and release of children in its custody in 46 of the 50 case files reviewed,” the report said. It included photographs of unsanitary shower facilities and plaster peeling from bedroom walls and called into question the provider’s shoddy records system and substandard practices around releasing children to sponsors. The Inspector General then recommended that Children’s Village refund the government close to $3 million in what it called unallowable grant expenditures.

Abuse allegations at the facility date back some 40 years. More recently, in 2012, a teacher was fired after sending nude photos to a 15-year-old at Children’s Village. The following year, a therapist was accused of stomping on a child’s face while that child was restrained.

By mid-2018, at age 15, the girl was sent back to Shiloh. She’d spend close to another year and a half there before she ever made it out again.

While she was there for the second time, in July 2018, a federal judge ruled that ORR had violated Texas laws that require parental consent for medication. Judge Dolly M. Gee said Shiloh must stop medicating children without consent, and ordered all migrant children to be relocated, unless a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist had determined they were a risk to themselves or others. Under Texas law, Gee wrote, “parents have the right to consent to medical, psychiatric, or psychological treatment … and other adult relatives of the child have the right to consent if the parent(s) cannot be contacted.” The court found that Shiloh staff improperly signed the consent forms themselves.

The family worry about whether their girl was one of the children who was medicated during her time there. But they’ve never been told.

In September 2019, the girl was once again transferred, this time back to the care of Morrison in Portland, where she remains today. While there, she turned 17; in another year she would age out, get transferred into the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and be placed into an adult detention facility.

Marcela Cartagena was a youth care worker and then an education assistant at Morrison for about a year and a half starting in late 2015. She said that while there were several individual efforts by teachers to support student learning, she characterized some of the teaching as a joke.

Sometimes, she said, a teacher would play a YouTube video about animals and call it science. Or a video about erupting volcanoes and call it geography. Even when lesson plans were more formal and adhered to, the teachers only had material for three months, as children aren’t typically in ORR custody for that long. So kids who are in custody past that three-month mark have a tough time getting anything new, according to Cartagena. The system has little to offer them.

“By that point kids lose motivation,” Cartagena said. “Their mental health starts declining and they lose hope.”

She remembers that a lot of children in the program arrived with few literacy skills. They’d enter the program super motivated to learn the ABCs, but anyone still in after three months would have to start all over again, learning the same basics. Spokesperson Patricia DiNucci did not respond to written questions about Morrison’s educational offerings.

Daisy Camacho-Thompson, the psychology professor, studies the way academic motivation predicts achievement. When I shared details about what I knew about the girl’s educational experience the last few years, she wondered what value education would even hold for the girl because of the trauma she’d experienced.

Camacho-Thompson said the constant stress the girl has endured may have diminished her motivation for learning. “Your body’s learning how to react to stress, and being moved around from place to place while you think your family has abandoned you,” she said.

Case managers tend to get the blame or praise from families in these situations. As the ones who talk most with sponsors, case managers play a significant role in communicating every step of the reunification process to family members desperate to get their kids back. Yet they have limited control over the outcome of any case. Officials within ORR are ultimately the ones who make the final decision on whether to discharge a child to their family, or transfer a child within the system.

In addition to her case managers and case workers, the girl has also had a number of other people working for her — at least one child advocate and many different attorneys. But these relationships are often temporary.

The case workers and managers are typically staff members of an individual shelter or treatment center. Katharine Gordon, the immigration attorney, said in her experience, “as long as the case worker is at the organization, the case worker stays on the case. However, I’ve experienced times when five or more case workers were on the same case, because of case workers leaving their positions.”

And every time a child is transferred to a new location in the system, they get a new case worker and a new case manager, Gordon said. The girl was transferred at least six times.

Another challenge of prolonged detention for children in federal custody is a lack of steady legal representation, which can create lost opportunities for immigration relief.

Sofia Linarte, an attorney who works with Catholic Charities Community Services of the Archdiocese of New York, was listed on the docket as the girl’s attorney that January day in the Portland immigration court. But the attorney who actually represented her before Judge Zanfardino was Caryn Crosthwait, who works with Immigration Counseling Service. Virginia Maynes, a colleague of Crosthwait’s, had also previously represented the girl, sources say.

All three attorneys work with organizations that are part of a national network of legal services providers funded by ORR.

The girl also has a child advocate named Pamela Nickell, who works with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, another ORR contractor. While the girl’s attorneys represent the girl as a client, Nickell’s role is to determine what’s in the child’s best interests — because what a child wants and what’s best for her aren’t necessarily the same thing.

I’ve tried to reach out to anyone I could find involved in this girl’s case over several weeks, but no one would comment on the case.

All three of the attorneys I identified that worked on the case, Linarte, Crosthwait and Maynes, said they couldn’t speak with me because of concerns over confidentiality. Nickell, her child advocate, didn’t respond to me. I called and emailed Isabel Rios, the girl’s case manager at Morrison, but she didn’t respond either. I asked to interview Judge Zanfardino, but the court’s spokesperson, Kathryn Mattingly, wrote to me that judges don’t do interviews. “Immigration judges consider all evidence and arguments presented by both parties and decide each case in a manner that is timely, impartial, and consistent with applicable law and case precedent,” Mattingly wrote in a follow-up email.

The Children’s Village shelter told me any questions about unaccompanied minors must be handled by ORR. When I sought comment from ORR, I initially received only a written statement from ORR spokesperson Patrick Fisher about the agency’s general policies and some recent data about the agency’s work on family reunification. ORR, he said, reunified 72,593 children in fiscal year 2019, which he called “the largest number ever in program history.” Fisher said as a matter of policy the agency doesn’t comment on specific cases — though ORR had asked me to identify the child in question, which I did.

“It must be emphasized that ORR evaluates potential sponsors’ ability to provide for the child’s physical and mental well-being,” Fisher’s statement read. “The overwhelming majority of UAC (unaccompanied minors) are released to suitable sponsors who are family members within the United States to await immigration hearings.”

In a subsequent email, Lydia Holt, the ORR spokesperson, said that every case is different and that generalizing from one individual case would result in an inaccurate depiction of the agency’s operations.

DiNucci, the Morrison spokesperson, said she couldn’t discuss anything related to a specific youth in the program’s care. ICE told me it doesn’t comment on cases that involve minor children or on any individual’s medical history.

If, for whatever reason, the federal government or its contractors decided the children shouldn’t be reunited with their family in North Carolina, the boy was at least placed with a loving family that’s ready to care for him for the long run. But his sister was moved around to seven placements in five states.

The brother has the freedom to be a child, to be good, to be bad, to make real choices. He has an engaging social media presence. He is fully bilingual, chatting easily in both languages, and enjoys reading the books assigned to him in high school English. He’s had consistent schooling for the past five years, and a steady mother figure and the chance to build real friendships.

But the girl told Doña Amalia that she’s still unable to read in either language. She is fluent in Spanish, but still only knows a handful of English-language words. For her, the window during which language is most easily acquired has closed. She’s been in situations where misbehaving has meant drastic consequences, where there are no friends and no adults steadily at her side. She can’t reach out to her brother on social media; she doesn’t even have her own phone.

The boy has existed in the free world with a devoted family. The girl never got a chance at an ordinary childhood. With less than a year before she turns 18, the fleeting years of her adolescence have all but vanished in detention.

There’s one line Doña Amalia said that has always stuck with me.

“They buried her,” she said. “They buried her.”

Not long after I passed the girl those papers near the elevator in the Portland courthouse, which included her aunt’s phone number, the family finally heard from someone in the shelter system for the first time in five years. Isabel Rios, who identified herself as the girl’s current case manager — the one who had chaperoned her that day in court — said the girl wanted to talk to Doña Amalia. Rios told them it had to happen sometime between Monday and Friday, they said; she didn’t work on the weekends.

Doña Amalia doesn’t have a cellphone. Setting up a call meant another family member had to take time off work to get to Doña Amalia’s home on Jan. 23 with a phone. Suddenly, Doña Amalia had a live video connection to the child she had longed to see for years. A week later, she recounted the conversation to me.

The girl spoke first. “Hi grandma,” she said.

Doña Amalia started to cry. She told her grandchild, “I’ve been crying for you for seven years.”

The girl said she’d been cutting herself again. She said she had asked to be deported and was going home to Honduras. Doña Amalia warned her about what awaited her there. “What are you going to do over there? To lose yourself. To raise children. To get passed around from man to man? That’s where you’re headed.” She told the girl not to go.

The girl told her grandmother that she thought the family had abandoned her. That she’d just called to say goodbye.

A few days later, Dayani gave her cousin an even clearer picture of what Honduras has in store. Dayani herself spent time in an ORR shelter in Texas and she remembers the desperation she felt while she was there. She’s been inside and she’s been out. And, several years older than her cousin, she has a sharper memory of what Honduras was like.

Dayani told the girl that in Honduras, men would come after her and there’d be no one to protect her. She wouldn’t always have food to eat or clothes to wear. If she survived the threat of violence that often defines their little town, she’d break her back doing work for very little money. In North Carolina, meanwhile, she’d have a supportive family, her own bedroom and her own cell phone.

After they’d spoken for a while, the girl relented and told Dayani that she’d rather go to North Carolina than Honduras now that she knew her family wanted her. But she said it was too late: Her request for voluntary departure had already been granted.

“I told her she had the right to ask for it to be canceled,” Dayani told me. She said the girl told her she would talk to her attorney or find someone else who could help her stay.

Soon after, the girl’s case manager asked the family in North Carolina if they had the birth mother’s contact information in Honduras. Within days, the birth mother says she also got a call and talked to her daughter for the first time in eight years.

I connected with the birth mother shortly after that call. She told me her daughter had decided she wanted to stay with her family in the United States after all. The birth mother, whose husband was murdered, is raising two younger kids on her own with money she gets from washing her neighbor’s clothing. She said she also wants her daughter to stay in the United States.

“The girl should be with her family,” she told me. “And that’s Doña Amalia.”

She told the person who called her — a Spanish-language speaker who may have been the case manager, an attorney or, she thought, someone from the U.S. government — that she wanted the girl with the people who raised her.

But the birth mother said the person on the line told her there’s nothing that could be done now that the judge had granted the child’s request for voluntary departure. Feeling defeated, she acknowledged that the girl could come to live with her — but said that she shouldn’t expect much.

“So I said, ‘Well, if that’s the result, then if she comes here she’s not going to have much to eat and she’s going to walk around barefoot like I do here,’” she told me.

The mother said that the caller did not inform her that her daughter still has the option to petition to reopen her case.

Family members have told me that, a little over a week ago, people related to the girl’s case arrived in the family’s community in Honduras. The family had been told by several community members that the visitors asked questions of the birth mother and her neighbors as part of what they believed to be an evaluation of whether the girl should be returned to her home country.

Now, the family says, they’re left waiting. The case manager is mostly ignoring their calls, just like before.

They don’t know what’s going on with their child. And they’re terrified they’re going to lose her again.

Reveal chose not to name the girl, her brother, or their birth mother to protect the children’s privacy as minors; their aunts asked not to be named, fearing repercussions from immigration authorities.

This is part one of a series. Sign up for Reveal’s newsletter to find out when the next installment comes.

Patrick Michels contributed reporting for this story.