Pennsylvania Court Decides Asylum-Seeking Families Detained at Berks Detention Center Will Have a Voice in State Licensing Case

Court agrees that the interests of detained families and legal representatives have not been adequately represented by Pennsylvania’s child welfare agency

Contacts: David Bennion, 646-441-0741, [email protected]
Karen Hoffmann, 412-916-4509, [email protected]   
Jacquelyn Kline, 484-877-8002, [email protected]

HARRISBURG, January 22, 2020– 

Yesterday, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that families formerly imprisoned by ICE at the Berks family detention center have the right to participate in a pending legal challenge to the facility’s childcare license.  

The Berks prison is one of only three in the country in which immigrant parents and children are incarcerated together, and it is the only one that had been issued a state license to operate. When that license was revoked in early 2016, Berks County appealed. The matter has been under administrative review for four years, with no resolution in sight. The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PA DHS) has allowed the center to continue to operate on an expired license. After ongoing public pressure on PA DHS and Governor Wolf to resolve the licensing issues, in 2018, families who had been detained at Berks filed a Petition to Intervene in the licensing proceedings at PA DHS. The judge presiding over the case denied the Petition to Intervene, and the families appealed that decision.

The Commonwealth Court sided with the families, finding that PA DHS has done an inadequate job of representing the interests of families detained at Berks. The court wrote: “In late 2015 DHS determined that the Center was operating outside its authorization but nonetheless has continually agreed to allow the Center to continue to operate. Given that pattern, Petitioners can persuasively argue that DHS is not adequately representing their interests.”

PA DHS has allowed Berks to continue operating despite the following serious violations:

  • The repeated institutional sexual assault of a detained mother by a guard, witnessed by young children, but never reported to Childline as required by mandatory reporter laws;
  • A seven-year-old girl named Maddie has now been detained for over 200 days, longer than any other child in the country and in violation of the federal Flores Agreement;
  • A father and his three-year-old son were held in medical isolation for two weeks even though the child tested negative for tuberculosis and the father never received a definitive diagnosis. Other children were not allowed near the three-year-old despite his negative test, further traumatizing the young boy;
  • Detaining children under ten years old in a locked and secure facility, which is prohibited by Pennsylvania law; 
  • Denying children appropriate medical treatment and mental health care; and
  • Depriving children of sleep by waking them up by shining flashlights and making loud noises every 15 minutes—40 times a night—which pediatricians have found is severely detrimental to their health and development.

Aldea attorney Carol Anne Donohoe stated, “Through their inaction thus far, PA DHS has shown they cannot adequately and zealously represent those most affected by this litigation – the detained asylum-seeking mothers, fathers, and children.”

G.C.G., who was detained at Berks with her young daughter for more than a year, said: “It’s time to close this center. While my daughter and I were there, my daughter got very sick. The confinement traumatized us emotionally. I want to tell those people with the power to close that place to think of the kids, their health. All the people there have family members here in the United States, who are waiting for them with open arms.”

Along with Aldea attorneys Donohoe, Bridget Cambria, Jacquelyn Kline, and Karen Hoffmann, co-counsel on the Petition are Khaled Alrabe of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild and David Bennion of Free Migration Project.


Aldea – The People’s Justice Center is a nonprofit organization based in Reading, Pennsylvania. Its attorneys and advocates have represented hundreds of individuals detained at Berks since 2015, as well as currently detained families, in their asylum and immigration proceedings pro bono.

The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild is a national non-profit organization that provides technical assistance and support to community-based immigrant organizations, legal practitioners, and advocates working to advance the rights of noncitizens. For 48 years, NIPNLG has promoted justice and equality of treatment in all areas of immigration law, the criminal justice system, and policies related to immigration.

Free Migration Project is a nonprofit organization that advocates for migration as a fundamental human right. Free Migration Project provides legal support and training to organizers and advocates, engages in public education and outreach, represents immigrant clients, and advocates for fair and open immigration laws.