Attorney: Undocumented Teen Seeking Abortion Faced Abuse at Refugee Shelter

Once the shelter found out she wanted an abortion, staff “harangued” her about the decision, some even asking what she planned to name the baby, the attorney told the Observer.


Before she fled to the United States, Jane Doe, as she’s known in court filings, allegedly watched her parents beat her older sister, who had become pregnant out of wedlock, with firewood and cables until she miscarried. When Doe tried to intervene, they allegedly beat her, too.

Now detained at a nonprofit refugee shelter in the Brownsville area, the undocumented 17-year-old has been forced by shelter employees to call her abusive parents and tell them about her own pregnancy, according to Susan Hays, an attorney who has been fighting the Trump administration to try to secure Doe’s abortion.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court ruled that Doe, who is 16 weeks pregnant, must be allowed to proceed with the abortion. But advocates are still concerned about alleged mistreatment of Doe for the last six weeks at a shelter overseen by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

“To force someone to get on the phone and speak to their abuser is itself abuse,” said Hays, the legal director and cofounder of Jane’s Due Process, a Texas nonprofit that helped Doe secure a state court order last month to allow her to have an abortion without parental consent. “Her parents treated her like property, and now the United States is treating her like property,” she said of the teen, who traveled alone to the U.S. from an undisclosed country in Central America.

Doe’s alleged mistreatment includes denying her right to an abortion, as well as “haranguing her” about her decision to have the procedure, Hays said, citing a sealed lawsuit accusing the company that runs the shelter, International Educational Services (IES), of infringing on her constitutional rights.

Once IES found out Doe was pregnant, staff limited her activity with other kids and refused to let her go on group excursions outside, Hays told the Observer. When she said she wanted an abortion, the shelter assigned a staff member to follow Doe around and stay with her at all times, Hays said. Some have allegedly asked Doe what she plans to name the baby.

“Her parents treated her like property, and now the United States is treating her like property.”

Representative Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, has served for years as the general counsel for IES. Lucio told the Observer on Monday that the shelter is following the direction of ORR, its licensing agency, “to the T.”

“[ORR] could shut us down at any moment for not complying with their oversight. So it’s our policy that unless we have strict guidance or ruling from a court to do otherwise, we need to do what our licensing oversight agency tells us to,” said Lucio, who declined to comment on specific allegations of abuse at the facility. “Because of the nature of this case, various agencies with oversight have been hands-on involving the interaction between our agency and the child, and we have been in strict compliance.”  

Office of Refugee Resettlement Director Scott Lloyd

The shelter’s refusal to allow Doe to get an abortion is part of a new ORR policy under director Scott Lloyd, who was appointed by President Trump in March. Lloyd has reportedly ordered shelters contracted by ORR not to “facilitate” abortion in any way without his personal approval.

The ACLU estimates that hundreds of pregnant minors are in federal custody. According to documents obtained by the ACLU, Lloyd has personally visited pregnant teens in ORR shelters to counsel them against having an abortion. Hays said they don’t believe he has visited Doe.

Tuesday’s appeals court ruling is an emergency motion to allow Doe to get an abortion, but would not end ORR’s broader policy for now.

The Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees ORR, said they “are providing excellent care to the adolescent girl and her unborn child,” but did not respond to a request for comment on specific allegations of her mistreatment.

Doe was originally scheduled for an abortion on September 29, for which she had funds and transportation arranged separately from the government and the shelter. Instead, Doe was forced to go to a crisis pregnancy center — a religiously affiliated facility that counsels against abortion. So far, she’s been forced to undergo four sonograms, Hays said. Because of Texas’ strict anti-abortion laws, she will have to get a fifth sonogram before she ultimately gets an abortion.

Attorneys for Doe hope that with Tuesday’s court order, she will finally be able to access what the court has determined to be a constitutionally protected procedure in the next few days. But first Doe will need to undergo a state-mandated 24-hour waiting period between a counseling appointment and her abortion. The federal government can still prolong her wait for an abortion by appealing the latest decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Doe’s advocates have been careful not to reveal details of her whereabouts out of concern for her privacy and safety. But on Monday, the federal government revealed in a court filing that Doe is being held at an IES shelter. Hays called the inclusion of the information “unethical and abhorrent,” the latest in what she says is a string of releases of confidential information by the government entities tasked with her protection.

“Everyone needs to remember this is a case about an abused minor, first at the hands of her parents, and now by the federal government,” she said. “For the Trump administration to continue to push details about Jane and her location endangers her and shows a lack of care for her safety.”