On July 1, a former detainee’s sexual assault claim against an ICE-related family detention center was allowed to continue, according to a Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The center had unsuccessfully attempted to secure immunity, then again was denied in its appeal to overturn the former decision.
The original lawsuit was filed by a former detainee—identified as E.D. in court documents—who was sexually abused by former detention center official Daniel Sharkey, while he was employed at the Pennsylvania Immigration Family Center at Berks County Residential Center (BCRC) in 2014.
Although Sharkey eventually pled guilty to the charges of institutionalized sexual abuse, the BCRC claimed the sex acts were legal because E.D. was never physically forced—even though Sharkey repeatedly threatened her with deportation if she didn’t comply—and because E.D. was not a traditional prisoner in the eyes of the court, and Sharkey not a prison guard. They asked the court to be granted qualified immunity, or immunity granted to public officials, which the court denied. The center then appealed the decision, and that appeal was most recently once again struck down.
In an amicus brief in support of E.D’s case written by the ACLU and six other organizations, the official’s conduct was described as “immoral, illegal, unconstitutional, and damaging to E.D.,” who had suffered months of assault and abuse.
E.D. and her son had fled sexual violence and intimate partner abuse in her home country of Honduras, and filed for asylum in the U.S. They were soon moved from a Texas border facility to BCRC, one of only three migrant family detention centers nationwide.
It was there, E. D. recalled, that the sexual harassment—and eventually assault—began.
Court documents reveal that “within weeks,” Sharkey—who had given E.D. and her son gifts and promised help on their immigration case—began sexually assaulting E.D. He threatened deportation when she initially resisted. But fearing for her and her son’s lives, E. D. felt she had no choice but to stay.
The assaults became more serious as the weeks progressed. Sharkey repeatedly forced E. D. to perform sexual acts.
In yet another miscarriage of justice, documents reveal BCRC employees knew of the abuse from early on. Yet, no employee or official stepped in until other detainees complained and the director, Diane Edwards, was notified. An investigation was then launched. But, fearing deportation and remembering Sharkey’s prior threats, E. D. denied allegations of assault.
The abusive relationship ended in August of that year when another resident found Sharkey and E. D. performing sexual acts, and Sharkey resigned from his post soon after. E.D. then told her immigration attorney, who reported the conduct to BCRC. Yet again, instead of protecting her, other BCRC officials placed special restrictions on E.D. and her son and “alienated” them from the rest of the detainees.
After, E.D. filed a lawsuit against BCRC for their willful neglect of Sharkey’s inappropriate conduct, citing the fact that sexual relations with such an imbalance of power could not be consensual—especially in an imbalance as severe as that of between a detention facility officer and a detainee, which was then compounded by Sharkey’s threats and coercion.
This case comes at a key time in the political climate when public outcry over the wildly inhumane conditions at border facilities has reached a fever pitch as, every day, more information and photos leak. Recall the recent exposure of an offensive Facebook group chat for 9,500 ICE officers in which participants sent vulgar, photoshopped images of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and mocked the widely-circulated photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned attempting to cross the border.
But amongst the terrifying conditions at border facilities and among the despair in the political scene, this small victory for E.D. and for sexual assault victims is wholly welcome.
Help support the seven organizations who wrote the amicus brief here: ACLU, the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, Futures Without Violence, Just Detention International, National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Tahirih Justice Center, and the Women’s Law Project.