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Democratic lawmakers on Friday sharply criticized Gov. Greg Abbott for “throwing political bombs” and challenged him to back up claims he made this week of sexual abuse at a San Antonio facility sheltering migrant youths. Abbott had called for the temporary Freeman Coliseum site to be shuttered amid the allegations.
The Freeman Coliseum has been operating as an emergency shelter housing migrant boys between the ages of 13 and 17 since March 30. It’s one of several sites the federal government has stood up in response to the influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America. But on Wednesday, Abbott said two state agencies had received reports of sexual abuse, staffing shortages, and inadequate feeding, along with an absence of coronavirus prevention measures.
“If there are allegations, we take those [seriously]. … But for the governor to play these piñata politics, make an allegation, and do very little or nothing to support the claim or assist in the investigation with federal officials, we have to take that at face value,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio).
Martinez Fischer joined seven of his fellow state legislators, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio), Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) for a tour of the Freeman Coliseum on Friday, followed by a news conference.
On Wednesday, Abbott directed the Texas Rangers and Department of Public Safety to begin an investigation into the abuse claims “immediately.” A DPS spokesman said Friday that the department could not release any further details as there is an “ongoing investigation.”
Abbott also sent a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris Friday asking her to shut down the Freeman Coliseum shelter and move the children to other federally run facilities “where the federal government has the space, personnel, and resources to ensure their safety.”
The federal government established an emergency shelter in San Antonio as the number of unaccompanied migrant children surrendering to federal custody at the southern border reached record heights in March. According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration seems to be spending $60 million a week to care for unaccompanied minors and quickly ran out of beds in its network of permanent shelters. The Post also reported that the cost of running emergency shelters is more than twice as expensive as permanent shelters.
According to the agreement between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Bexar County, the federal agency will provide staff, security, and equipment for the coliseum and reimburse the county for any costs it incurs while the facility is used to house migrant youths.
In his letter to Harris, Abbott also attached a memo from Texas Department of Family and Protective Services and the Health and Human Services Commission that explained the allegations received by the agencies. The agencies received three reports total, the representatives said. Those included concerns about staff ratio, lack of supervision overnight and during showers, children not eating enough, and that “children who are homosexual may be bullied.”
“DFPS and HHSC have referred these matters to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement,” the agency representatives wrote in the memo dated Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is investigating these claims, Castro said. None of the allegations that the agencies shared included concerns about sexual assault, he noted.
“Those are very serious allegations, and regardless of our political party or who we are, whether we’re in politics or not, all of us should be concerned about the welfare and the well-being of these kids,” Castro said. “So I would encourage the governor, to please come forward with whatever evidence he has of any sexual abuse, physical abuse, or anything else. The governor has a responsibility to put that evidence forward as soon as possible. Otherwise, he’s not offering any kind of help or solutions. He’s just throwing political bombs.”
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-San Antonio) also visited the Freeman Coliseum on Friday, according to a news release from his office. Though he did not share details from his tour, he said that “any allegations of misconduct or abuse must be fully investigated.”
“As a father to six, seeing unaccompanied children is heartbreaking,” Gonzales said in a statement Friday. “Any child – no matter their legal status – must be protected against any type of abuse. Freeman Coliseum will be at capacity this weekend. I have three other facilities like this in my district. The border crisis is a humanitarian crisis and will not get better until President Biden works with Congress to find a solution to securing our border.”
Castro said nearly 1,900 migrant youth are currently being housed at the Freeman Coliseum. Out of those, he was told 182 had tested positive for the coronavirus and were being held in a separate area within the coliseum. The reports the state agencies shared with the governor’s office Thursday did not include allegations of a lack of coronavirus prevention measures.
State Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D-San Antonio) also said the staffing ratio of the coliseum seemed to be acceptable, despite the allegations received by the state agencies. There appears to be one staff member for every 20 children, and the goal is to have one staff member for every 15, she said.
“As an educator, you have 1 to 22 in the classroom,” she said. “If you just want overall supervision, 1 to 20 is not the optimal, but it’s a good situation.”