Separated Migrant Children Suffered Post-Traumatic Stress, Watchdog Says

Jordan Fabian

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their families caused the minors to suffer fear, post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems, a watchdog found.

Workers at migrant shelters reported that “separated children experienced heightened feelings of anxiety and loss as a result of their unexpected abandonment” more often than children who were detained after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border alone, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.S. health department’s internal watchdog.

Some of the separated kids cried “inconsolably” and others believed their parents abandoned them and were “angry and confused,” according to the report by the inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Staff at multiple facilities told investigators that some children “experienced physical or sexual abuse and other forms of violence” in their home countries, including several who were kidnapped and raped by gang members, according to the report.

One program director at a facility said a 7- or 8-year-old boy was separated from his father without explanation. The child mistakenly thought the father had been killed, and thought he would also be killed. He “required emergency psychiatric care” as a result, the report said.

The report recommended more extensive mental health training for staff at detention facilities, and the inspector general said the administration concurred with the proposals.

The report provided the fullest accounting yet of the effects of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy that drew condemnation from Democrats and immigrants’ rights advocates. A backlash over the treatment of the children triggered a crisis for the Trump administration and the president ultimately backed away from the policy.

FBI Checks

More than half of shelters supervised by Health and Human Services allowed new employees to begin work without completing an FBI background check, a screening by state child protective-services agencies, or both, said Amy Frontz, assistant inspector general for audit services.

More than half of the detention centers also employed case managers who didn’t meet education requirements to be mental health providers, Frontz said in a briefing for reporters on Wednesday.

“Inadequate clinical services can have significant consequences,” Frontz added.

The health department maintains about 170 detention centers nationwide for migrant children apprehended after entering the country. The shelters have come under closer scrutiny as an increase in migration from Central America in recent years has caused a surge in their population.

Unsafe Conditions

The HHS watchdog has previously found unsafe and unsanitary conditions at facilities the agency contracts to house unaccompanied children caught while crossing the U.S. southern border.

Before 2012, fewer than 8,000 children a year were housed in the detention centers. But the population has grown rapidly since then, peaking at more than 59,000 in fiscal 2016. There were more than 49,000 children housed at the shelters at some point in fiscal 2018, according to HHS.

The detention centers are supervised by the health department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which takes custody of children apprehended by U.S. immigration authorities without parents or adult guardians.

More than 5,500 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the southwest border in July 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Unlike adults who cross the border illegally, people under age 18 must be transferred to the custody of the HHS program.

The agency has struggled to care for unaccompanied children since the number of crossings began to spike during former President Barack Obama’s second term. The problem was exacerbated by Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy that separated children from their parents who crossed the border illegally. Trump signed an order ending the separations in June 2018, though immigrant advocacy groups say it has continued at a slower pace.

In a report last month, the inspector general said children were put “at risk” inside more than a dozen facilities operated by Southwest Key, a Texas nonprofit that houses the most children in the HHS program. One detention center kept used syringes in an open trashcan inside a medical office and in two facilities, children could access a weed trimmer and gas container in an unlocked storage area, the IG found.

Southwest Key also couldn’t provide evidence it checked all adult guardians to whom children were released against sex-offender databases. The group’s chief executive officer, Juan Sanchez, resigned in March after criticism of conditions inside the group’s shelters, as well as scrutiny of financial compensation paid to him and other executives at the nonprofit.

The investigation covered July through November 2017, during Trump’s first year in office. It also included personnel records from Obama’s final year as president in 2016.

(Updates with more from report beginning in fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan Fabian in Washington at jfabian6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alex Wayne at awayne3@bloomberg.net, Joshua Gallu, Justin Blum

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