Detaining Migrant Children Has Lifelong Psychological Effects, Experts Say

Prison-like detention centers compound the trauma of vulnerable kids.
Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for minors in Brownsville, Texas, is shown in a photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday.
Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for minors in Brownsville, Texas, is shown in a photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday.
Administration for Children and Families/HHS via Reuters

America’s largest shelter for migrant children looks more like a jail than a safe space for kids. On Wednesday, journalists were allowed inside the former Walmart store in Brownsville, Texas, now filled with more than 1,400 boys ages 10 to 17, and their reports are harrowing.

The children spend 22 hours a day inside and sleep in overcrowded, makeshift bedrooms, with less than 40 square feet of living space to themselves, according to The Washington Post. “This place is called a shelter but these kids are incarcerated,” tweeted MSNBC journalist Jacob Soboroff, along with a photo of kids lining up for food in what resembles a prison cafeteria.

Since the Trump administration began separating migrant children from their parents in May, youth detention facilities have become more crowded. Casa Padre, the center in Texas, doubled its population from April to May, according to the Post, and an estimated 5 percent of the children it houses were taken from their parents upon entering the U.S. As rates of child detention increase, experts told HuffPost, there will be serious mental and health consequences for a particularly vulnerable population of children.

Children who are fleeing their home countries for the U.S., usually from Guatemala or Honduras, have already experienced trauma. Luis Zayas, the dean of the school of social work at the University of Texas at Austin, said they have usually grown up in extreme poverty and have either witnessed or been victims of violence. “Teenage boys are told you have to join a gang or they will kill you,” he said. “Kids have watched their mother and father be threatened, harassed or killed by these gangs.” He said that by the time they end up at a shelter, they’ve made a long, dangerous trek and spent time in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers that are cold and cramped.

The environment in youth detention centers such as Casa Padre ― severe guards, cramped spaces, strict schedules that limit outdoor time ― can compound a child’s trauma. The kids end up deprived of a healthy childhood.

“The most fundamental bond is the child-parent bond,” Zayas said. “We are ripping those children out of the arms of their parents.”

Chandra Ghosh Ippen, associate director of the child trauma research program at the University of California, San Francisco, said the facilities don’t have enough staff members to give children the sense of security they need. “They think, ’The person I love has just disappeared. When you have feelings and turmoil like that, you need to be with someone to help you be safe.”

Children kept in youth detention centers often develop mental illnesses and behavioral issues. Studies have shown that they display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety; these kids often have nightmares, wet the bed and refuse to eat, which can last even after their release.

Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, remembered meeting a traumatized 7-year-old Haitian child who had spent more than a year in a detention facility in the 1990s. “She would jump around and look at you and say, ‘Are you my mommy? Are you mommy? Are you my mommy?’” she said. “This kid was probably scarred for life.”

Detention can have long-term psychological effects on the children. Zayas explained that when a child’s brain is continually under stress, it doesn’t properly develop. Rather than learning social cues and how to problem solve, children are focused on survival. “We will see problems in the future where kids can’t perform well in school,” he said, adding that children who are constantly on alert have a higher chance of developing physical illnesses, such as diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders.

Ghosh Ippen pointed out that, in addition to physical symptoms, the trauma of being separated from a parent and detained can warp a child’s worldview. “I think it affects their sense of justice and affects their sense of morality,” she said, “and whether or not they view grown-ups as safe.”

Zayas said that facilities for migrant children should resemble campuses instead of prisons, and they should be places where kids can freely roam outdoors and access social services and health care. But instead, he said, the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction, citing the government’s plan to create an isolated tent city on a military base for immigrant children.

“We should be providing guardianship for these children, not prison guards,” he said. “This government is doing everything wrong.”

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