A former case manager at a shelter for children caught illegally crossing the border alone had sexually abused six teenagers while he was supervising calls they made to relatives in Central America, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
Mark Birney, a deputy district attorney for Orange County, said in opening statements that Victor Salazar molested the boys inside his closed-door office at a Fullerton shelter multiple times between 2007 and 2008.
"They feared that if they said something, they wouldn't be believed. They'd be deported. They'd be ostracized for having another man touch them," Birney said. The teens didn't want to stir up any trouble at the center, which provided them with food, clothing, a stable environment and the chance to go to school, he said.
Salazar, 30, is on trial for the alleged abuse, which led the federally contracted shelter to install office doors with windows, enhance video surveillance and ban one-on-one transport of children by staff. If convicted of all the charges, he could face up to a decade in prison.
His attorney, Lisa Eyanson, told jurors that children often grew emotional during phone calls to family and any touching Salazar did was aimed only at comforting them. She also said the teen who initially reported the allegations had recently been disciplined by Salazar for throwing an object at a teacher.
"You'll find there was no sexual intent to any touching that was done," she said.
The case provides a window into a program overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services for children swept up by border agents. Many of the children leave their homes in Central America to reunite with family in the U.S., while others flee abuse or set off in search of jobs to support their relatives.
More than 6,000 children hailing largely from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were taken into federal custody in the 2009 fiscal year. Most of them, like the alleged victims in the case against Salazar, were teenage boys, according to federal statistics.
The federal government contracts with shelters around the country, like the one in Fullerton, to house the children, while case managers try to determine whether they should be reunited with family here, placed in foster care or returned to their countries.
Salazar began working at the shelter for immigrant children when it opened in March 2006. He previously worked at another facility for teens where he had cleared background checks and got rave reviews from the children and his fellow staff members, Joyce Capelle, executive director for Florence Crittenton Services of Orange County, told the Associated Press by phone.
After a teenager at the center reported that he heard Salazar had inappropriately touched another child, Crittenton put Salazar on administrative leave and called police.
The investigation turned up a total of six children with similar complaints, including some who had been released to live with relatives in the United States, Capelle said.
Prosecutors say Salazar molested six boys between the ages of 15 and 16 between May 2007 and February 2008. He is charged with four felony counts of lewd acts on a child, three felony counts of oral copulation of a minor and seven misdemeanor counts of sexual battery.
A Guatemalan-born man testified that Salazar touched "between my legs" five to ten times, even though he pushed his hand away. Now a 20-year-old community college student in Worchester, Mass., the man said Salazar was in charge of deciding whether he would be placed with a foster family or be sent back to Guatemala, where he only had received four years of schooling.
"It make me feel terrible," said the man, who was brought to the shelter after he arrived alone in the U.S. illegally from Guatemala when he was 15.
Prosecutors planned to call to the stand two more alleged victims who were released from the shelter and now have legal status in the United States. Two other alleged victims were returned to Central America, Birney said.
Eyanson declined to state whether Salazar would testify.
Since Salazar's arrest, the center in Fullerton has trained staff on child abuse under a special program focused on refugee and immigrant children. Other government-contracted shelters had already started conducting the training in response to prior allegations of sexual abuse at a shelter in Texas, Capelle said.
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families, declined to comment on the pending litigation.