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Wednesday
Jun202018

Violations found at converted Walmart housing undocumented children separated from their parents

iStock/Thinkstock(BROWNSVILLE, Texas) -- Texas state inspectors identified nearly 250 violations at facilities run by Southwest Key, the non-profit organization now housing migrant children separated from their parents in a converted Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, according to records obtained by ABC.

Reports filed with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) show 246 "deficiencies" -- defined as failures to comply with regulations governing child care -- at Southwest Key residential programs across Texas since the fall of 2014.

The company's largest shelter for undocumented children, Casa Padre, which is a converted Walmart in Brownsville, has become a flash-point in the debate over President Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy that separated children from parents caught attempting to cross the border illegally. On Wednesday, the president signed an executive order ending the family separation policy.

ABC News' Tom Llamas visited the facility late last week, which now houses 1,500 migrant boys ages 10 to 17, and observed it was clean and well staffed, with several activities to keep the kids busy during his tour.

However, HHSC records filed by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services show that at Casa Padre alone, inspectors identified 13 deficiencies over the past year.

In one particularly worrisome report, dated October 2017, the facility's medical coordinator "failed to follow up with treatment" for a resident who tested positive for an STD for a full two weeks.

At other Southwest Key residential facilities, which also house children apprehended at the border, reports noted a child with "unsupervised access to a tool/knife," a child "clearly in pain" not given prompt medical care, and a child administered Tylenol despite an allergy to the medication.

HHSC records also documented children wearing "dirty clothing" and gathering in rooms that reached an "unsafe temperature" following an air conditioning outage.

Staff members were accused of showing up to work drunk, writing obscene language on a chalkboard, and repeatedly speaking to children in a "belittling" or "harsh" manner.

One staffer allegedly engaged in an "inappropriate relationship" with a child, one deficiency report said.

Southwest Key tells ABC News they undertook an "extensive investigation" for each violation, noting that in some cases, employees were retrained and disciplined, and some were terminated.

The company notes that over the past three years, Texas investigators evaluated Southwest Key on 78,570 issues, including many self-reported to regulators by the company, and found deficiencies in just 0.3 percent.

"We strive to provide the highest quality of care possible," the company said in a statement, adding that every shelter employee completes 40 hours of training prior to working with children, and an additional 40 hours of on-the-job training before they supervise kids.

A spokesperson for HHSC, which documented the violations, told ABC the agency's job "is to inspect and look for violations of our state standards... when we find them, we cite them and work with the facility to correct the issues."

"Our focus is to help ensure safety," he said.

The company’s large footprint

Austin-based Southwest Key operates at least 16 residential facilities across Texas, with 10 more in Arizona and California. About 10 percent of the children currently in their care were separated from their parents under Trump's "zero-tolerance" policy, according to the company.

A spokesperson for Southwest Key told ABC News that they welcomed Wednesday's order, saying: "We were pleased to learn that the president also signed a bill that will end the separation policy."

Public records indicate the company employs around 4,500 people, and the company says it has served more than 23,000 children over the past two years.

So far this year, they've been awarded $458.7 million in federal money to care for kids detained at the border, including children separated from their parents and minors attempting to cross the border alone.

Just last week, the federal government awarded the company $1,147.8 million, the most money they've ever received in one sum, according to HHS records dating back to 2007.

Bob Carey, who oversaw Southwest Key's contracts while serving as director of U.S. Health and Human Services’ office of refugee resettlement during the Obama administration, told ABC News that the company had a sizeable footprint.

Southwest Key Programs was “one of if not the largest government contractor for this purpose,” he said. “These are big, big grants, particularly if you’re doing on an emergency basis, extremely complex."

The company’s CEO Juan Sanchez has defended their actions amid the new scrutiny.

"We're not the bad guys. We're the good guys," Sanchez told ABC affiliate KVUE last week. "We're the people that are taking these kids putting them in a shelter, providing the best service that we can for them and reuniting them with their family."

"Somebody's gotta take care of these children, no matter what," Sanchez added. "If we don't take care of them, who's gonna take care of them? They're going to wind up in a detention center, a real detention center, and other facilities that are not adequate for children."

On the page dedicated to the company's mission, it states that the company "is committed to keeping kids out of institutions and home with their families, in their communities."

Sanchez -- who, according to the company's website, was "shaped by his experiences as a migrant worker" -- has drawn ire for his high salary. In 2016, his compensation was listed as $770,860, which included $249,065 in bonuses and incentive compensation.

"Dr. Sanchez’s salary is well below the average, when measured in terms of a percentage of the organization's revenue, in comparison to CEOs at non-profits of similar size," Southwest Key said in a statement to ABC News, adding that his salary accounted for less than 1 percent of the group's revenue.

While that compensation figure may strike some as large for the head of a non-profit, a spokesperson for watchdog group Charity Navigator told ABC News that such a salary “would not be considered atypical” because of the size of the organization.

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Wednesday
Jun202018

Toddlers at a tender age facility were 'traumatized,' doctor says 

Google(NEW YORK) -- The room being used at one of the so-called "tender age" facilities designated to house immigrant children looked "home-y" but something seemed wrong.

Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told ABC News that a concerned pediatrician working near the border called her to come and visit a facility housing children under 12 years old in Combes, Texas.

She was able to visit the facility, run by the company Southwest Key Programs, in April, and she said that it was unsettling because the children were "so abnormally quiet."

In one room reserved for toddlers, there were beds, cribs, toys, books and a play mat, Kraft said.

"It was actually kind of a home-y setting," she said.

“What was really striking about the place, it was a room full of toddlers [and if you’ve ever been in a room full of toddlers you’d know] they're active, they’re loud and they’re playing and they’re rambunctious. This room, all of the children except for one were very quiet and were playing quietly... except for one little girl who was crying and sobbing and wailing and just inconsolable.”

The girl looked like she was under 2 years old, Kraft said.

“The worker was trying to give her toys and trying to give her books but she couldn’t pick her up or hold her,” Kraft added.

“We were told that the policy was that they couldn’t actually hold or pick up the kids,” she said.

Asked if she would have held the kids if that were allowed, she said she absolutely would have done so.

“It’s a logical comforting thing to do we just do that as human beings,” she explained.

“Here you have a bunch of quiet little toddlers and one inconsolable crying toddler who couldn’t be helped... we knew that none of us could help these kids because they didn’t have what they needed which was their mother,” she said.

“They were traumatized.”

Southwest Key Programs did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

In response to a different story, where a former employee said that he was told to tell boys in the care of Southwest Key Programs that they could not hug each other, the company released a statement saying, "hugging is absolutely allowed."

Kraft told ABC News she also went into the room for preschoolers, between ages 4 to 6, and said that the kids were playing with toys and looking at some books.

The pediatricians that flagged the centers to Kraft said: “They knew what kind of stress would do to these poor little developing brains.”

Kraft explained that people have stress responses, “and we have increases in our cortisol, in our fight or flight hormones and they're there for a reason..."

"For a developing child, that stress when buffered by a loving parent helps them to become resilient ... these hormones come into play when a child falls down and hurts themselves," Kraft said. "But these same hormones when they are prolonged, when there’s prolonged exposure and there’s no parent to buffer these hormones, they cause disruption in the neuro synapses. And they cause disruption to the developing brain architecture."

In summary, Kraft says that sort environment without the emotional support of a parent can likely cause brain damage for a child.

“The pathways that develop, that lay the foundation for speech for social-emotional development, for gross and fine motor movements are happening during this young time when these toddlers are still developing," Kraft explained, "and this prolonged stress or what we call exposure to toxic stress, it disrupts the developing brain.”

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jun202018

Heartbreaking stories of children impacted by border crisis

John Moore/Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Their names are a mystery and in some cases, their faces are too.

But the stories of the children caught in the crosshairs of the "zero tolerance" policy at the border are resonating with people across the country.

Here are some of the stories of children whose experiences have captured the nation's attention.

The girl pictured crying for her mother

One of the most iconic images of the border crisis featured a 2-year-old girl from Honduras.

John Moore, a special correspondent and senior staff photographer for Getty Images, took the photo after spotting the girl in her mother's arms while he was participating in a ride-along with Customs and Border Protection agents in Texas.

He saw a group of roughly 20 mothers and children late on June 12, "gathered on a dirt road" in a part of the Rio Grande Valley and, upon approaching the group, he saw the girl in her mother's arms.

Moore said that he saw that the mother was breastfeeding her daughter "to keep her calm" and that, later, one of the agents asked the mother to put her daughter down.

"Once the mother put her on the ground she started screaming immediately," Moore said.

The mother and daughter were taken away from the scene together, and because their names are unknown, it remains unclear if they were separated, though the policy mandates that if the mother faced charges they would be separated.

Read more about Moore's experience here.

The boy put in foster care with American parents

When a 9-year-old Guatemalan boy arrived at a Michigan foster care home, he was so afraid he couldn't eat.

Over time, the boy, whose name has not been released, confided to his foster parents that he and his father had escaped violence and poverty in their homeland only to be greeted with more hardship when they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, where the boy watched his dad being taken from him in handcuffs.

"When he came to us, he was extraordinarily fearful,"said Jen, the new foster mother of the boy, who asked ABC News not to use her last name to protect the family's privacy. "He came in all-black clothes, we learned, because he traveled at night with his dad and they didn't want to be seen."

The child handed them a piece of paper from a packet his mother had sewn into his pants before he and his father left home. The paper contained phone numbers of people his family knew in the United States, as well his mother's phone number in Guatemala.

While a Michigan caseworker was collecting the father and son's intake information, she called the mom's phone and she answered.

"He was overcome," said Jen. "He couldn't talk. He was crying so hard he was almost to the point of being sick."

Over the past eight months, the boy, now 10, opened up - telling caseworkers the story of his and his father's treacherous journey to what they thought would be the land of promise.

Read more about the boy's journey here.


The heartbreaking audio

The recording first reported and released by ProPublica of crying children in one of the shelters included the voices of a number of distraught children, and one of them has since been identified.

Alison Jimena Valencia Madrid is a 6-year-old girl who fled gang violence in El Salvador with her mother.

She's heard on the tape asking an official in Spanish, "Are you going to call my aunt so that when I'm done eating, she can pick me up?"

She memorized her aunt's phone number, and the aunt told ProPublica that she was allowed to make the phone call, but it was still heartbreaking.

"She’s crying and begging me to go get her. She says, ‘I promise I’ll behave, but please get me out of here. I’m all alone,'" the aunt told ProPublica.

Watch our video report about her story here.

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Wednesday
Jun202018

Immigration backlog exceeds 700,000 cases and rising

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- One thing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and immigration activists can agree on is that there is a huge backlog of immigration court cases at the southern border.

And they’ve been increasing since 2016, according to Syracuse University's TRAC Immigration database, which monitors U.S. federal immigration enforcement.

As of now, there are 714,067 pending immigration cases, according to the database.

By comparison, there were just over 400,000 in 2014, just over 450,000 in 2015 and more than 515,000 in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

The courts in New York, Los Angles, San Francisco and Houston are experiencing the biggest backlogs, data show.

In response, the U.S. Justice Department sent 35 more prosecutors to the Southwestern border last month. The department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which adjudicates immigration cases, also added 18 immigration judges to hear cases in person and via video conference.

The assistant U.S. attorneys are allocated along the southern border states of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico.

In a speech earlier this month at the EOIR, Sessions talked about a 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. immigration judges hearing cases in the coming year.

Because the Department of Justice now refers all immigration cases for prosecution, there could be a bigger increase of backlogged cases.

At an event last month, EOIR Director James McHenry said his office is always looking for ways to expiate the process but ensure due process.

There are more than 320 immigration judges around the country but Sessions has signaled that he wants to hire more to address the problem.

To that end, Congress has given the DOJ room to hire up 150 new judges, McHenry said.

But President Trump expressed a different view in his reaction to a proposal by Senate Republicans, saying that adding judges on the southwest border would be "crazy."

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Wednesday
Jun202018

Heavy rain, flooding will continue for Midwest and South

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- There were nearly 150 damaging storm reports Tuesday from Washington, D.C., to Denver, including five reported tornadoes, with many of the areas looking at more rain and possible flooding on Wednesday.

Some of the worst damage on Tuesday was reported in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, where hail bigger than baseballs covered the ground and damaged cars. More than 10 inches of rain fell Tuesday in parts of Texas and up to 8 inches of fell in the Plains, producing flash flooding from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Kansas and Nebraska.

Flash flooding is possible on Wednesday from Montana to Texas. Flood watches have been issued in southeast Texas and across much of the Plains.

The bull's-eye will stretch from Texas to Illinois, where some areas could see more than 4 inches of rain.

Excessive heat

A huge area of high pressure is moving into the Southwest, drying the air out and heating it up.

Excessive heat warnings and watches were issued for California, Nevada and Arizona for the next several days as temperatures soar into the 110s.

The heat will spread into central and northern California as well, with cities such as Sacramento and Redding heating up into the 100s.

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Wednesday
Jun202018

Mississippi mother charged in infant son's hot-car death

Jackson County Sheriff’s Office(VANCLEAVE, Miss.) -- A mother in southern Mississippi has been charged with second-degree murder after her 10-month-old son was left in a hot car and died, authorities said.

The child, Kash Barhonovich, died last Thursday after being left in his mother’s parked car for an unknown length of time outside her home, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday.

The temperature reached 90 degrees with a heat index of 98 degrees that day.

The preliminary autopsy results show that Kash's death was consistent with hyperthermia, or having a body temperature greatly above normal, according to the sheriff's office.

Elizabeth Marie Barhonovich, 28, of Vancleave, Mississippi, was jailed Tuesday without bond on the second-degree murder charge, the sheriff's office said. She made her first court appearance Wednesday morning without an attorney, and did not enter a plea, the sheriff's office said.

Kash was one of at least 15 children to die from hot cars so far this year, after 43 died in 2017, according to kidsandcars.org.

Another baby died Tuesday after being found in a hot car in Kingsland, Georgia, according to The Florida Times-Union. Authorities declined to confirm the place or cause of the baby's death, citing a pending autopsy report, Donald Belcher of the Kingsland Police Department told ABC News.

In general, it takes little time for a car to get too hot for babies and kids.

Children's bodies heat up much faster than adults' do, and children's internal organs begin to shut down after their core body temperature reaches 104 degrees, according to a report from the National Safety Council.

On an 86-degree day, for example, it would take only about 10 minutes for the inside of a car to reach a dangerous 105 degrees, the report said.

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Wednesday
Jun202018

Pennsylvania police shoot, kill teen fleeing from them at traffic stop, authorities say

iStock/Thinkstock(PITTSBURGH) -- Pennsylvania police shot and killed a 17-year-old boy near Pittsburgh Tuesday night after pulling over a vehicle believed to have been connected to an earlier shooting incident, authorities said Wednesday.

Officials have not released the names of anyone involved.

The Allegheny County Police Department reported receiving multiple 911 calls of shots fired in the borough of North Braddock at about 8:20 p.m.

Callers reported that a vehicle was seen fleeing the scene, according to authorities. Descriptions of the vehicle were relayed to neighboring police departments to assist in the search.

North Braddock police and paramedics responded to the scene and discovered a 22-year-old man who had been shot, authorities said. He was transported to a trauma center where he was treated and released.

Meanwhile, an East Pittsburgh police officer stopped the vehicle matching the descriptions, Allegheny County police said, and the driver was taken into custody.

But, during the arrest, two other people in the vehicle fled, according to authorities.

“One individual -- a 17-year-old male -- was shot by police," the Allegheny County Police Department said in a Facebook post Wednesday morning.

Police provided no additional information about the fatal shooting.

The teen was transported to McKeesport Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.

There is an ongoing search for the other person who fled the scene, authorities said.

Multiple police agencies are assisting, including Pennsylvania State Police, which has provided a helicopter to help in the search, according to ABC Pittsburgh affiliate WTAE-TV.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Allegheny County Police Department’s anonymous tip line at 833-ALL-TIPS (833-255-8477). The department can also be reached via its social media sites.

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Wednesday
Jun202018

Massachusetts jogger details how she escaped terrifying abduction attempt

iStock/Thinkstock(BRIDGEWATER, Mass.) -- A Massachusetts woman is opening up about how she managed to fight off a convicted rapist who attacked her over the weekend and tried to force her into his car.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, spoke out Wednesday in an interview with ABC's Good Morning America, offering exclusive details on how she mustered up the strength to fight off the man who assaulted her early Sunday morning.

The terrifying ordeal unfolded while she was out for a routine jog at around 7:30 a.m. Sunday in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, about 33 miles south of Boston, when a man pulled his SUV over, ran toward her and tried to drag her into his vehicle.

A surveillance camera captured the terrifying ordeal on video as the 37-year-old woman kicked and screamed as she tried to escape from the attacker’s grip.

"I was able to fight and kind of flip him to the ground," the woman said, but she fell to the ground, as well. "I don't wanna go into too many details because some of it is tough for me to talk about, but he was grabbing at me."

"I just kept kicking back behind me. I was not even sure if I was making contact with him," she added.

Afraid for her life, she said she screamed "Help me" repeatedly and as loud as she could, knowing that the situation could end badly if the attacker got a better grip on her.

"I was just trying to prevent him from getting a further hold of me and getting to a point where he could either assault me or pick me up and get me into the vehicle," she said. "I knew if that happened, I was in a really bad place."

She managed to break away when the assailant stumbled a bit, fell to the ground and ran back to his car, according to the surveillance video.

Police arrested 57-year-old Gordon Lyons, a convicted rapist, in connection with the attack after he allegedly fled at high speed and crashed his vehicle.

The woman said she’s thankful to be alive. Her attack recalls other high-profile assaults in recent years.

A similar story unfolded in Queens, New York, on Aug. 2, 2016, when 30-year-old Karina Vetrano was fatally strangled while jogging alone with her dog. Chanel Lewis, 20, was arrested in February for second-degree murder, a little over six months after Vetrano's death.

Another woman, Vanessa Marcotte, 27, was murdered less than a week later while jogging near her mother’s home in Leominster, Massachusetts. Police charged Angelo Colon-Ortiz, 31, with assault with intent to rape and aggravated assault and battery in connection to her case, citing DNA from under her nails and witness accounts, according to local reports. Colon-Ortiz pleaded not guilty.

Officials with the Bridgewater Police Department commended the woman from Sunday's video for refusing to be a victim.

"She also had the presence of mind to take a picture to help law enforcement catch the perpetrator," a spokesperson for the department told Good Morning America.

The woman, who described herself as an avid runner, said she was afraid the entire time, but she would not let her fear paralyze her.

"I'm not gonna say I wasn't afraid," she said. "But it was kind of a moment of, yeah, some fear, but also this -- I’m not gonna let this happen. This is not how my story ends."

She praised the police department and her "hero" neighbor, 84-year-old Donald Prohovich, who yelled at the attacker and intervened when he realized what was happening.

"I cannot tell you how grateful I am. That is a brave man and a man that cared," the woman said.

Lyons, the man accused in the attack, was charged on Tuesday in court, where he attempted to hide his face with a sheet. He pleaded not guilty.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

Wednesday
Jun202018

Family of 12-year-old New Jersey girl who killed herself sues school district

Family Photo(ROCKAWAY, N.J.) -- The family of a 12-year-old who committed suicide has filed a lawsuit against the young girl's school district, claiming it failed to protect her from months of intense bullying.

Mallory Grossman, a sixth-grader at Copeland Middle School in Rockaway, New Jersey, killed herself on June 14, 2017, following months of “ongoing and systematic bullying” that her family said caused her to suffer at school, according to a lawsuit filed on Tuesday.

Her parents, Dianne and Seth Grossman, filed a wrongful death suit against the Rockaway Township Board of Education and its staff, citing at least 14 bullying incidents they said drove her to kill herself.


One incident involved messages where the bullies allegedly asked her when she was going to kill herself, according to the suit. The Grossmans said they could provide evidence to prove that the school system could have prevented the alleged attacks.

The suit did not name any particular teachers, but it said staff at Copeland had failed to provide a safe and secure environment for students. They called on the school to change how it handles physical and online bullying.

The parents said they addressed the alleged bullying in a meeting with Mallory and officials at Copeland just before her death, saying their daughter was "suffering at the school," but nothing changed, according to the suit.

Dianne Grossman said the bullies still haven't been punished.

"We know that the poor behavior and poor decisions these kids make has not changed," she told New York ABC station WABC-TV. "They do not believe ultimately that they are responsible for it."

"Our family is forever changed because they chose not to put systems in place. They chose not to protect her, so I want other school systems to learn from this and to start making immediate changes within their buildings," she added.

Rockaway's Board of Education has previously called the Grossmans' allegations "categorically false," but declined to elaborate Tuesday, citing an ongoing investigation, according to local news site NJ.com.

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Tuesday
Jun192018

Did Minneapolis cops pressure medics to sedate suspects with ketamine?

iStock/Thinkstock(MINNEAPOLIS) -- In a joint statement on Monday, Minneapolis' mayor and police chief sought an independent investigation into claims that city police asked emergency medical responders to sedate dozens of criminal suspects and others over the past three years with the powerful tranquilizer ketamine, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In some cases, suspects were allegedly handcuffed or otherwise restrained when they were sedated, and in other cases the individuals were not even accused of committing a crime, the Star Tribune reported.

In one case from the draft report that the newspaper cited, Minneapolis police officers and Hennepin County emergency medical personnel responded to a 911 call to find an unnamed man "who appeared to be in the throes of a mental health crisis."

Despite the man's protests, he was injected twice with ketamine and "became nonverbal and unintelligible," according to the Star Tribune.

The newspaper reported that it had obtained a copy of an unreleased draft report on the issue compiled by the city’s Office of Police Conduct Review.

The draft report said the drug “caused heart or breathing failure in some instances and suspects had to be revived or intubated,” according to the Star Tribune.

Ketamine is an animal tranquilizer that is often abused recreationally. As a powerful sedative, it has also been used as a so-called “date rape drug.”

Minneapolis officials are looking into the 2015–2017 time period in the investigation, according to the joint statement.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo underlined the need for an independent investigation in their statement.

"To preserve public trust and ensure an impartial process -– one free of any interference, intentional or otherwise -– we will contract with an independent third party to provide the needed expertise to compliment the draft report's findings. The people of Minneapolis deserve transparency from their government," the two officials said in their statement.

The probe comes amid a dramatic spike in ketamine injections between 2012, when three such injections were documented, and 2017, when that number reached 62, according to the Star Tribune's review of the draft report.

Neither the Office of Police Conduct Review nor the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office immediately responded to ABC News requests for comment.

The issue came to light in April, after emergency responders associated with Hennepin Healthcare, formerly Hennepin County Medical Center, began to complain of feeling pressured by police to inject the drug into criminal suspects.

On Tuesday, Hennepin Healthcare provided ABC News with a statement that pinpointed the genesis of the investigation.

Hennepin Healthcare said in the statement that based on complaints from its emergency services personnel, the hospital's director of emergency medical services contacted Minneapolis police officials in early May to "clarify that medical direction for sedation is the sole responsibility of the paramedics."

The statement went on to say that "while a police request for ketamine may occur, the final decision is always made by professional medical personnel."

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