Slut Shaming our Refugees

Forgive me. I’m angry. My client was a victim of sexual abuse at the Berks Family Shelter. My client is a 20 year old mother who fled Central America with her three year old son. They were fleeing horrific domestic violence, including sexual assaults. My client had made this journey twice after being ignored, belittled and demeaned by the first set of border patrol agents she met. They ignored her pleas for refuge and deported her back to her country where she again was harmed and threatened with torture and death by the father of her son. This time she escaped again with her son and was allowed in to have her day in court before an immigration judge.

She and her boy were taken to the Berks Family Shelter in Leesport, PA, a prison with crayons. Soon after she arrived a male guard at night took notice of her and began attempting to befriend her. She ignored him but he was persistent. He plied her with treats and allowed her to use his cell phone. He began to promise to make her immigration process go easier and even promised to pay her bond. She became closer to him and soon they began a sexual relationship. Under federal law this is called sexual abuse of a ward and is a strict liability offense, which means there are no defenses of consent like in a traditional sexual assault. This is akin to sexual assaults of a minor or those who are incapable of consent and this is for very good reason. The power dynamics of a guard and a prisoner are such that the concept of consent in these circumstances are not as they are in a traditional sense. In this instance, women who many have been victims of severe sexual assaults and trauma in their past are particularly vulnerable, as was my client.

My client and this guard were caught on at least one occasion by a 7 year old girl who had her own history of trauma caused by sexual violence. This relationship was common knowledge among the other detainees, which brought my client shame and embarrassment. This guard told my client that if she told anyone he would go to jail and she would be deported. This terrified my client and she kept quiet.

The supervisors at the Shelter spoke with my client and she denied the relationship out of fear. They spoke with the 7 year old girl and others at the Shelter who confirmed the relationship. ICE investigators interviewed my client without my knowledge and out of fear she denied the relationship. During neither of these interviews did anyone tell my client that she had done nothing wrong and that the guard was the one that had committed the crime. She remained afraid.

My client finally confided in me and I explained the law. She felt ashamed, embarrassed, used, manipulated and victimized by the system she had put her trust in. The Shelter finally addressed the issue by prohibiting tight clothing, like yoga pants and tight shirts. The other women blame her. The Shelter seems to be blaming her.

This will not stand. This cannot stand. I am angry and sad, but I am not disheartened. I know my client is strong and I believe in our system and I believe our system will correct this wrong. I am angry about my client, but I am also angry about the other women and children whose only crime was to seek out our country for protection and we greet them with prisons with crayons. The most vulnerable amongst us sought us out because we are good and decent. It is about time we stop making them look like fools and start living up to their expectations.