Inspector General: Separated children have more post-traumatic stress

Washington, D.C. — Thousands of migrant children have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as families arrive in search of safety, opportunity or both. But a new federal report raises concerns about the effects of these practices on migrant children.

Joanne Chiedi, acting inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, last week released a report on the “mental needs of children” in HHS custody, including separated migrant children.

The report’s assessments — which drew on visits to nearly half of all “care provider facilities” — were not good. Separated children have more “post-traumatic stress than children who were not separated,” the report found. They also have increased fear and “feelings of abandonment.”

The report includes quotes from unnamed workers at the facilities, many of whom observed suffering. Healthy children complained of physical symptoms, and one mental health clinician warned there were “many ways” for children in custody to harm themselves.

In one case, a mental-health clinician questioned why a child was placed on antipsychotic drugs for sleeping problems when other treatment methods hadn’t yet been tried. In another, “a seven- or eight-year-old boy” needed “emergency psychiatric care” after being separated from his father “without any explanation,” according to a program director.

“The child was under the delusion that his father had been killed and believed that he would also be killed,” that director told investigators.

In response to an inquiry from The Big Bend Sentinel, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said in an email Monday it currently has custody of around 6,100 unaccompanied migrant children. But the agency did not specify how many of those children were separated from parents at the border when asked for clarification.

In the same statement, the agency said it was “fully committed” to caring for migrant children and outlined steps it said it was taking to do so. Among them: Finding “evidence-based approaches to addressing trauma” and “taking reasonable steps to safely and quickly discharge” unaccompanied minors to suitable sponsors.

Family separations at the border began around early 2017 and were an official component of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which lasted for a short time last year. In a court filing from last October, the feds estimated they’d separated 2,654 children from their families, including 1,033 who were under 10 years old.

Critics, though, say that family separations never really ended. The feds can still separate children from guardians under certain exceptions, including if the parent has a criminal history, sometimes even for past immigration offenses, said Christie Turner-Herbas, deputy director for special programs at the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense.

“Border Patrol is basically using that as a this big door that they can go through to try to separate any parent or child,” Turner-Herbas said. The situation remained “really troubling.”