‘I want to die’: Was a 5-year-old drugged after being separated from his dad at the border?

‘I want to die’: Was a 5-year-old drugged after being separated from his dad at the border?


Originally published by The Washington Post

The boy stood at the window with clenched fists, watching a heavy rain fall on the overgrown yard outside. Three months earlier, the 5-year-old and his father had fled death threats in Guatemala, seeking asylum in the United States. Instead, Border Patrol agents had sent his dad to an immigration jail and Adonias to a children’s shelter in Chicago.

Now, six days after their July 24 reunion, his father was sitting across the room from him in the shabby, shotgun house they shared with four relatives, asking Adonias what had happened in the 10 weeks they were apart.

He knew there were allegations that Adonias had been injected with something that made him sleepy when he misbehaved — accusations state and federal authorities are investigating but could be difficult to definitively resolve.

The shelter, which conducted its own investigation, adamantly denies wrongdoing, and the boy’s medical records — provided by his attorney with his parents’ permission — show no injections of anything except vaccines. But an independent psychological evaluation before his release from Casa Guadalupe found he was “exhibiting signs of trauma, particularly when triggered by [a toy] syringe.”

Amid the controversy, the records offer a stark portrait of one child’s painful odyssey through the family separation process.

Adonias’s case has become emblematic of concerns about the treatment of thousands of migrant children, especially those taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration’s short-lived family separation policy.

In recent weeks, there have been charges of sexual abuse of a 6-year-old and a 14-year-old at two Arizona shelters, and a federal judge ordered a Texas shelter for troubled children to stop giving them psychotropic medication without a court order or parental consent.

Had Adonias been drugged, wondered his father, a 30-year-old bricklayer who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal should he or his son be deported.

But the 43-pound boy with the biblical name and shelter-issued buzz cut didn’t want to talk about his time at Casa Guadalupe.

As he stared outside, tears welled in his long, dark eyelashes.

Suddenly, he raised a small fist and punched the glass hard.

“Adonias, no,” his father said.

But the boy struck the glass again.

“Adonias, no.”

Punch. Punch. Punch.

“I’m still too sad,” the boy said between sobs. “I want to be alone.”

'Authority to make medical decisions'

Adonias screamed and flailed his fists at Border Patrol agents, his father recalled, when they were separated inside an Arizona holding facility.

By nightfall, when Adonias arrived at Casa Guadalupe, the boy and his father were 2,000 miles apart.

The Chicago shelter is one of more than 100 facilities across the country with federal contracts to take care of migrant children. Many, like Casa Guadalupe, were founded years ago to house thousands of unaccompanied minors who come to the border by themselves each year until they can be reunited with relatives. But under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, these shelters suddenly swelled with more than 2,500 children stripped from their parents.

Some of these shelters, which are privately run but overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, have long been plagued by accusations of physical and sexual abuse.

HHS said it has a “zero-tolerance policy” for all forms of abuse at its shelters. “Our focus is always on the safety and best interest of each child,” the agency said in a statement. “Any allegation of abuse or neglect is taken seriously, investigated by ORR, and appropriate action is taken.”

But the controversy over family separations has highlighted new allegations, including complaints about the drugs prescribed to children held in the shelters.

On April 16, days after the introduction of “zero tolerance,” a coalition of civil rights organizations and legal clinics asked a federal judge to take action against Shiloh Treatment Center, claiming the shelter near Houston routinely gave immigrant children “chemical straight-jackets” of psychotropic pills and sedative injections to control their behavior.

After more than a dozen children at Shiloh said they were given drugs that made them sleepy, dizzy and nauseated, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee last week ordered ORR to obtain parental consent or a court order before prescribing psychotropics except in cases of dire emergencies.

“While we try to contact parents or guardians about treatment procedures, by definition [these children are] in the custody of ORR, and ORR has the legal authority to make medical decisions,” an HHS spokeswoman said.

Neha Desai, director of immigration for the National Center for Youth Law, one of the organizations involved in the case, said she has since learned of children in Central America now experiencing withdrawal symptoms from psychotropic drugs apparently given not only at Shiloh but also at other shelters. The children were deported, Desai said, with no “warning about how to wean or how to transition to other medical care.”

'He does not feel safe'

In Adonias’s case, records provided by his attorney with permission from his parents offer a rare glimpse of the medical care provided in ORR shelters.
He arrived at Casa Guadalupe on a Monday night in late May: alone, afraid and confused.

“Father in ICE custody,” says an initial intake form. “Minor has no contact numbers.”

“Participant reported he does not feel safe without his parents,” says his safety assessment.

“Minor reported that he need[s] to be reunified with his father,” says a case summary.

[Tracking how many migrant children are still separated from their families]

At the shelter, a cluster of houses in the suburbs of Chicago, Adonias was weighed and measured — he was 3 feet 7 inches — and quizzed about his medical history. According to a health questionnaire, he told employees he had no allergies, was taking cold medicine — for a cough he’d picked up on the journey to the United States, his father said later — and had already received his vaccinations.
But when Adonias saw a shelter doctor two days later, she authorized him to be given Children’s Benadryl “every six hours as needed for allergy symptoms.” It’s unclear from his medical records whether Adonias received the medication, which can make children sleepy.

The doctor, Lauren Selph, also signed off on a battery of vaccinations for Adonias. On May 24, three days after his arrival — and 12 days before the shelter got in touch with either of his parents — the 5-year-old was given eight vaccines, including a flu shot, records show. A month later, he got five more vaccines.

A spokeswoman for Heartland Alliance, the nonprofit that runs Casa Guadalupe and eight other shelters in the Chicago area, said that “in the absence of medical records, ORR mandates that we administer all vaccinations required for the age of the child. According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] there is no medical harm for a child to receive a vaccination twice.”

At one point, Adonias was taken to the emergency room because of an ear infection, for which he was given ear drops and amoxicillin syrup, according to the medical records. He was also given a chest X-ray because of his cough, but it came back healthy.

Mixed into his medical records are glimpses of the boy’s grief and anger.

“The minor reported that he has felt sad at times while in the program, due to the adjustment and missing his father and mother,” one form says. Several incident reports describe him getting into fights with other boys, then bawling in his room.

“You are not my mother, this is not my home,” he said in Spanish to a female shelter employee after one meltdown, according to one report. In the classes he shared with other children — many of them also separated from their parents — he became disruptive, according to the records.

But nothing in the file explains what two older Brazilian boys told The Washington Post and the New York Times they saw happen to Adonias at Casa Guadalupe.

“Almost every day, someone we called ‘the doctor’ would come into class after Adonias started misbehaving or did not calm down and the doctor would inject him with a shot that made him calm down right away and fall asleep,” Diego Magalhaes, 10, said in an affidavit provided to state investigators.

Diego also told The Post he had broken his arm at the shelter but was not seen by a doctor and, instead of an X-ray, was given a temporary cast. An X-ray taken after his release did not show a break but did show inflammation at the site of the injury, according to Diego’s attorney, Jesse Bless.

Heartland Alliance reported the allegations to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services shortly after being contacted by a reporter from The Post.

On July 31, the nonprofit said an internal investigation that included interviews with staff and an extensive review of video footage in classrooms and common areas found no evidence to support the allegations of Diego breaking his arm or Adonias being drugged. Vaccines were administered by medical personnel in a separate building, and other staff did not have access to syringes, the organization said.

“We are confident that we have conducted a thorough investigation,” said Heartland’s president, Evelyn Diaz.

But Adonias’s attorney, Amy Maldonado, said Heartland’s response sounded like “a defense of the shelter and not an investigation.”

“We have multiple child witnesses,” she said, noting that Heartland had not interviewed children and that the injections might not have been caught on camera.

Before the furor over Adonias, the most serious complaint against Casa Guadalupe occurred in 2015, when a 15-year-old boy received oral sex from an 11-year-old boy with a “history of trauma and abuse,” according to state records. The older boy also tried to have anal sex with the younger one.

In a statement, Heartland noted that its shelters have housed 15,000 children in the past five years and that “reporting sensitive information about minor children without context, and then using that as if it defines our work is both shortsighted and wrong.”
Adonias sometimes behaves like any 5-year-old. But he’s often fearful and angry, too. (Charlotte Kesl/for The Washington Post)
Adonias’s mother in Guatemala learned of the drugging accusations from Maldonado. For weeks, she said, she had had trouble contacting her son at the shelter but was suddenly given a lengthy video chat with him after the allegations surfaced.

But when she spoke to Adonias, the boy who had always been full of energy — racing friends through the woods in Guatemala like Mowgli, his favorite character from “The Jungle Book” — seemed dopey and exhausted.

“Mami, they threw water in my face to wake me up to come talk to you,” he said, according to his mother. When she asked why he was so tired in the early afternoon, she said he answered: “They gave me a vaccine, and it made me sleepy.”

Then the boy began to nod off during the call.

As Maldonado tried to figure out what had happened to her client, she was also working to get him reunited with his father — who was still in Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s custody — and released, all before a July 26 deadline set by a federal judge.

On July 19, she had Heartland take Adonias to an outside psychologist for an evaluation.

During the evaluation, Adonias used a toy snake to poison and kill other toy animals, including people. When he found a toy syringe, the psychologist wrote, Adonias “was observed to have a strong physiological reaction, as his eyes widened, appearing glazed over, and he rhythmically pressed the injection over and over, which made him . . . appear to dissociate.”

Adonias “displayed themes of harm, being isolated and fearful and captured without an understanding of why he is with others but without his parents,” the psychologist concluded. “He does display significant signs of being triggered by a syringe which is atypical for his age.”

Maldonado said she also tried to get Adonias’s blood drawn to check for traces of drugs. But before she could arrange it, the boy was released and put on a flight to Texas to be reunited with his father.

'I was in a prison for kids'

The storm that had rattled the thinly built house had passed, and now Adonias was racing barefoot through the puddles it had left behind. The 5-year-old giggled as he splashed his older cousin with water the color of chocolate milk.

“Doni, come talk,” his father said, approaching from the tiny porch and holding out his cellphone with the boy’s grandfather on the line.

But Adonias gave an icy stare. “No gracias,” he answered.

“He doesn’t want to talk,” his father said into the phone, echoing what he had already told the boy’s mother.

Adonias spoke to a Post reporter about his time in the shelter only haltingly.

Asked whether he had missed his father, he nodded.

“When he called me, he was sad,” he said. “Because I was in a prison for kids, and he was in a prison for adults.”

Asked whether he was given medicine, Adonias said he was given “vacunas,” or vaccines, “many times” in the shelter’s clinic and “in class.”

“They gave me one here and one here and one here,” he said, pointing to both arms and his hand and reenacting a moan. “And then I couldn’t get up.”

He was given vaccines, he said, so that he “slept in the day” and “because I didn’t want to sleep at night.”

He said he missed many things about the shelter: the slides, the soccer games, his Brazilian friends Diego, Diogo and Leonardo, and the teachers who taught him bilingual songs.

But he didn’t like to talk about any of it, he said, “because of the vaccines.”

When Adonias was reunited with his father at the Port Isabel Detention Center in southern Texas, volunteers from Catholic Charities offered to put them up for a night at their nearby shelter.

“Papi, I don’t want go,” the boy said after hearing the word “shelter,” according to his father. “They give lots of injections there.”

He wasn’t just fearful. He was furious. At the Atlanta airport, Adonias had a meltdown in the terminal, refusing to go with his father and shouting that he didn’t love him.

“The first couple of days, he would get angry easily and start shaking,” his father recalled.

Slowly, the boy seemed to be getting better. But the games he played were darker than before. And he had a newfound fascination with knives and machetes.

“He’s this way because they locked him up,” his father said. “I would have preferred they had just sent us back than for him to end up like this.”

As he stood on the porch near a fallen American flag, his son sat in a motorized toy car, revving the engine and honking the horn.

“Papi,” Adonias said, aiming the yellow car off the raised porch. “I’m going straight ahead in the car.”

“Yo me quiero morir,” the boy added quietly. “I want to die.”

A wind stirred the tall grasses.

The father said nothing but put his foot out to block the car from falling.
Adonias’s father says he has gotten better but that the games he plays are darker than before. And he has a newfound fascination with knives and machetes. (Charlotte Kesl/for The Washington Post)
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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