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Boy recalls bullying inside Chicago’s Casa Guadalupe shelter as criticism mounts

Heartland wouldn't allow the Chicago Sun-Times inside but provided photos from one shelter, on the South Side.

The older boy had already caused trouble for Alexander inside the Chicago shelter known as Casa Guadalupe.

After being separated from his mother at the border under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, 11-year-old Alexander had been taken to the shelter where he met a 14-year-old boy who tripped and kicked him when they played soccer.

Finally, when the boy asked to see outside Alexander’s window one day, Alexander began to move out of the way.

Suddenly, Alexander said the boy grabbed his leg, forcing him to fall and hit his head on a metal bed frame. He quickly began to bleed.

Alexander wound up with three staples in his head after visiting Advocate Lutheran General Hospital. Within hours, he returned to Casa Guadalupe, where the boy who tripped him remained. Then, he said, the staff there told him to apologize — without explanation — to the boy who knocked him over.

That’s the story told by federal court records and by Alexander in a phone interview Wednesday with the Chicago Sun-Times. It comes at a time of mounting criticism of the organization that runs Casa Guadalupe, Heartland Alliance.

“They need to treat the children better,” Alexander said in Spanish through an interpreter. “The people there are paid to take care of the kids and they make them feel bad. They make them cry. They don’t take care of them. They need to take care of them.”

The Sun-Times wrote earlier this month about children who were being housed in Heartland shelters in Chicago and noted that, at the time, the children’s advocates had been reserved in their criticism of Heartland. Since then, claims of abuse have surfaced that led to probes by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General.

Cardinal Blase Cupich also visited one of its shelters Wednesday, officials said.

Mailee Garcia, a Heartland spokeswoman, responded to Alexander’s story with a statement Wednesday that said, “over the last week, we’ve heard allegations about our programs that are troubling as they do not reflect our values or the quality of care we strive to provide.”

“We are investigating and are reviewing incident reports, medical records, staff disciplinary reports, examining our policies and protocols, and more,” Garcia said in the emailed statement. “We welcome additional investigation of our programs, and if any investigation reveals that a staff member placed a child in danger, we will take immediate action.”

Heartland Alliance runs nine shelters dedicated to housing and caring for migrant children apprehended at the border across Chicago. The Sun-Times revealed recently that dozens were being housed here as a result of Trump’s immigration policy.

Despite the swirling allegations, a lawyer representing a boy at the center of it all remained tepid in her criticism of the agency Wednesday. Amy Maldonado told the Sun-Times she still believes Heartland is “run well from the top,” but it appears to have “problems on the ground.”

Still, members of the City Council blasted the agency as it advanced a measure that would require regular inspections of Heartland’s facilities.

Garcia told the Sun-Times by email that, “Heartland has no objection to additional oversight.”

Among the allegations that have surfaced is the claim that a 5-year-old Guatemalan boy named Adonias was injected with something that made him sleepy after he acted up in class. Maldonado, his lawyer, said two children witnessed the injection.

“I also know that my client’s mother told me verbally on the telephone that when she talked to him he talked about getting shots and getting sleepy and having water splashed in his face,” Maldonado said.

Alexander said he left the shelter about four weeks ago and is living in Miami with his mother. She filed a lawsuit against Heartland in federal court there earlier this month.

The boy is not identified by his full name in the lawsuit, and his family asked that he be referred to as Alexander. The lawsuit says the family came to the United States from Central America.

Though he did not see any children given injections, Alexander said he was forced to scrub toilets without gloves. And he said that while the kids were allowed to fist-bump and shake hands, they were not allowed to hug.

Still, he said fistfights that broke out in the shelter led to separation but little else. And when it came to his bully, he said nothing changed after his visit to the hospital.

The boy who knocked him over kept hurting him whenever they played soccer.

Contributing: Fran Spielman

Jon Seidel and Fran Spielman are Sun-Times staff reporters. Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.