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Calif. case manager for children caught crossing border alone charged with molesting 6 boys
SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) ' A former case manager at a shelter for illegal immigrant children caught crossing the border alone went on trial Wednesday on charges of sexually abusing six boys under his care.
Orange County prosecutors say Victor Salazar molested the boys inside his closed-door office while they were making monitored phone calls to their parents in Central America.
A Superior Court jury was seated Wednesday morning and opening statements were set to begin. If convicted, the 30-year-old Santa Ana man could face a decade in prison for the alleged abuse that led the federally contracted shelter to install doors with windows, enhance video surveillance and ban the one-on-one transport of children by center staff.
The case provides a window into a program run 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.
"He was their connection to family," said Mark Birney, a deputy district attorney for Orange County. "If they wanted to talk to their family, he was how they went about making a phone call."
A message was left with Salazar's attorney Lisa Eyanson seeking comment.
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 government statistics.
Salazar began working at the Fullerton, Calif., shelter for immigrant children when it opened in March 2006. He had previously worked at another facility for teens where he had cleared all background checks and got rave reviews from the children and his fellow staff members, said Joyce Capelle, executive director for Florence Crittenton Services of Orange County.
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 elsewhere in the United States, Capelle said.
"These kids are uniquely vulnerable because in some of their countries of origin there's no trust in authorities to even come forward," she said. "They think if they don't acquiesce, it will somehow screw up their legal case."
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.
Some of the victims said they didn't report the assault immediately because they feared they could be deported or denied calls to their families if they complained, prosecutors said.
During the trial, prosecutors plan to call to the stand several of the alleged victims who were released from the shelter to live with family or foster parents. Two of the alleged victims were returned to Central America, Birney said.
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.