A new report describes the traumatic impact of family separations on migrant children under the Trump administrations “Zero Tolerance” policy.
The Department of Health and Human Services inspector general details accounts from 100 mental health clinicians across 45 government facilities housing children separated from their parents in a report released Wednesday. The IG states that a key take away from the report findings is that facilities struggled to provide care for children who had experienced intense trauma.
In addition to suffering trauma prior to and on their journeys to the US, children experienced severe trauma when suddenly separated from their parents and the reunification process sometimes added to that trauma. According to the report, children who were separated from their families suffered more symptoms of fear and PTSD and feelings of abandonment than children who were not separated from their families. One program director told inspectors, “Every single separated kid has been terrified. We’re [seen as] the enemy.”
The report states that children cried inconsolably when separated from their parents and tells the experience of one boy, aged 7 or 8, who was separated from his father without explanation. The boy believed his father had been killed and that he would be killed as well. Investigators were told the boy had to receive emergency psychiatric care.
Reunification efforts often happened suddenly, without preparing the child and sometimes were cancelled without explanation. One example given is a child who was taken from Florida to Texas to be reunited with her father but was then sent back to Florida, after multiple trips to the detention center, without ever seeing him. She was “in shambles” after the experience.
Children remained in custody longer, as long as 93 days, after the implementation of a policy of requiring fingerprinting for sponsors and all member of their household, per CNN. This policy, according to shelter staff, led to overcrowding. The policy, which may have prevented some potential sponsors from coming forward to sponsor children in the shelters and thus leading to longer stays and overcrowding, was reversed in December. The report found that the longer children remained in ORR custody the more their mental health deteriorated and this led to increased demands on staff.
Children in custody are meant to have a minimum of one counseling session and two group sessions per week. The expected ratio of one clinician per 12 children was not met, with clinicians each responsible for 25 children or more.
A separate report released on Wednesday found that 31 of the 45 facilities had hired case managers who did not meet ORR requirements and 28 facilities didn’t have enough mental health clinicians. Furthermore, some facilities hired staff before receiving the results of their background checks or fingerprinting. Some facilities depended on staff to report their own criminal histories. This led to one employee being hired after she “self-certified” that she had committed no child abuse crimes when she had actually been charged with a child neglect felony.
The visits from the inspector general took place in August and September of 2018, during the period of time when the Trump administration had decided to label every adult who had crossed the border illegally a criminal and necessitating that any minors then be removed from the individual’s custody. Approximately 12,400 children, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, were under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the time of the review.
The numbers of children under 12 created challenges for staff who were accustomed to dealing with teenagers. During the period of April to May 2018, the percentage of children younger than 12 under the care of ORR went from 14 percent to 24 percent.
The IG recommended strategies be developed for helping children deal with trauma in therapy, for overcoming challenges in hiring qualified mental health professionals, to assess the necessity of establishing maximum case loads, to improve access to mental health specialists, to increase therapeutic placement options, and to minimize the time children spend in ORR custody.
The HHS division that oversees children, the Administration for Children and Families, agreed with the IG’s findings and said they have already begun taking steps to implement them, the AP reports. Lynn Johnson, Department Assistant Secretary, told the IG that “significant factors” that were beyond the agency’s control were the reason for the issues identified in the report and that the length of stay is shorter than it was at the time of the review. She further noted that the report was not a review of the mental health treatment the children in government custody received.