One day after school in late March, 7-year-old Matías twisted colorful pipe cleaners into the shape of handcuffs. He slid the sparkly blue and bright-green circles over his small wrists and held them out proudly, as his mom, Victoria, watched silently from the door of their small bedroom.
“They grabbed my mom,” Matías said in a quiet voice, referring to immigration officials who shackled his mother. “Both her legs and her hands.”
A few minutes later, Matías tied a bright-pink pipe cleaner in a loop around his ankle, a toy version of the black ankle monitor his mom wears so that Immigration and Customs Enforcement can track her every step. Tears welled up in Victoria’s eyes as she thought about how being separated at the border more than 11 months ago continues to impact her son.
“That’s the way I was treated,” said the 23-year-old from Guatemala, who requested HuffPost use pseudonyms and not reveal the family’s location, because of safety concerns related to her asylum claim. “He remembers everything.”
Almost a year later, most children from that group have been reunited with their mothers and fathers. But HuffPost spoke with six parents who said their kids remain deeply traumatized. They describe how their once affable sons and daughters are now angry, withdrawn and unable to sleep. Some don’t want to go to school or leave the house, for fear of being separated once again, and constantly burst into tears.
Other children have physical scars, from self-harming after prolonged periods in detention. And at least 200 children remain permanently separated from their parents who were deported back to life-threatening situations and opted to keep their sons and daughters safe in the U.S.
Mental health experts and lawyers told HuffPost that family separation, which happened to potentially thousands of families before the implementation of zero tolerance and which continues despite the policy’s termination, could traumatize children for the rest of their lives.
“There are real long-term consequences in developing brains,” said Elaine Weisman, the program and training manager at International Social Service, USA. “There are going to be lasting effects on a generation of kids and young people.”
‘I Don’t Want To Leave You, Mom’
Victoria brought her son to the U.S. last spring because she was the target of threats and violence. Her immigration lawyers requested that HuffPost withhold any more details of why she left her home country to protect her ongoing asylum case.
Matías was taken from Victoria on May 10, after she says an immigration officer mockingly told a group of sobbing parents, “Don’t cry today, today is a happy day. It’s Mother’s Day.” He was sent to a shelter in New York, and Victoria, who was shackled and sent to a detention center in Nevada, didn’t see her son again for 2 1/2 months.
During their time apart, Victoria suffered from chronic headaches. She said she sobbed constantly and barely slept or ate. Her son wasn’t faring any better. A social worker from the children’s shelter told Victoria he wouldn’t eat or get out of bed.
In June, on Matías’ seventh birthday, she cried thinking of her little boy spending the day by himself in detention.
Victoria says that since they were reunited in July in a family detention center and released from ICE custody five months later, her son is no longer the same child. He used to be talkative and affectionate. But now she says the 7-year-old is withdrawn, angry and frequently breaks into tears. He constantly wants to sleep, and though he used to love eating eggs with beans, and cottage cheese, he now barely has an appetite.
Victoria says most mornings he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to class, and cries again when she drops him off for the day.
He’s told her, “I don’t want to leave you, Mom,” said Victoria. “I don’t want the police to come get you, Mommy.”
The 23-year-old, who often tucked her hands into a short red jacket and hunched her shoulders during our interviews, is completely overwhelmed. She has no family in the U.S. and works seven days a week on mostly overnight shifts, cleaning offices and a bakery.
There are going to be lasting effects on a generation of kids and young people. Elaine Weisman, International Social Service, USA
Victoria rents a 200-square-foot room on the East Coast, much of which is taken up by the double bed she and Matías sleep on and a single bed another young immigrant boy shares with his aunt. The windows are blacked out by fleece blankets, a shiny Christmas garland decorates the wall, and small T-shirts hang on a curtain rod.
While Victoria is at work, her roommate puts Matías to bed, and if she doesn’t call him by 8 p.m., he cries. Up until recently, the child slept with a cellphone flashlight on due to nightmares about men watching him in the dark.
Victoria says he doesn’t do his homework or participate at school, and according to his teacher, won’t be moving on to second grade next year.
“He’s traumatized and we don’t talk,” she said. “It’s the most painful and worst thing that’s happened in my life.”
A Child’s Brain, Forever Changed
Psychologists say family separation can permanently damage a child’s brain, leading to mental illnesses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, an inability to focus at school, and difficulty forming healthy relationships.
Dr. Yenys Castillo, a clinical psychologist who works with detained immigrant children, explained that when kids are taken away from their caregiver, they go into a state of toxic stress in which hormones flood their brains and affect its development.
“Everything gets disrupted,” says Castillo. “For kids, trauma can change their personalities, who they are, the way they view themselves in the world.”
Experts say it’s common for immigrant children to struggle with separation anxiety and constantly fear they will once again be taken away from their parents. Anilu Chadwick, a senior attorney at Kids in Need of Defense, said her colleague worked with a 5-year-old boy who was afraid to board the bus to his elementary school, which reminded him of the bus he took to a detention center after being separated from his parent.
Another mother told HuffPost that since reuniting with her son, the 9-year-old calls her constantly at work to ask where she is and when she’ll be home.
“He always says he is very scared,” said Griselda Mejia, who is from Honduras and now sells Mary Kay cosmetics in Louisiana. “He fears that if I go out somewhere I might not come back.”
Going to therapy can help children work through the damage, but most separated families don’t have access to or the resources for mental health services. In the U.S., only six states and the District of Columbia provide undocumented minors with health coverage. For families who were reunited back in Central America, there is often no therapy available in remote, poverty-stricken regions.
The almost 60 children who were separated under zero tolerance and remain in detention might still be in a state of toxic stress. But traumatic symptoms can also intensify once families are reunited, according to child psychiatrist Dr. Amy Cohen, who said children can then start to process their feelings.
“In some ways the hardest part is the aftermath [of family separation],” said Neha Desai, the director of immigration at the National Center for Youth Law. “You’re putting your life back together and uncovering layer upon layer of how the trauma has wreaked havoc on every aspect of your life.”
Violent Nightmares And Tears
On a recent morning before school, Victoria asked her son what he remembers about being separated at the border. Lying on their bed, he pulled a gray fleece blanket up to his nose and didn’t answer.
“Don’t cry, baby,” Victoria said in a soft voice and put her arm around him. “Don’t be sad.” In the background, a fire alarm chirped periodically, its battery begging to be replaced.
When she asked Matías about the children’s detention center he stayed in, the 7-year-old covered his entire body with the blanket and said, “I can’t tell.”
“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” said the young mother, who still hadn’t gone to bed after an overnight shift cleaning offices. “That’s always the way it is.”
Matías said thinking about that time period makes him feel “cold,” a reference to the notoriously freezing temperatures inside the Border Patrol stations and the frozen ham sandwiches he ate.
Experts say they’ve worked with many separated children who have become withdrawn. Dr. Cristina Muñiz de la Peña, a child psychologist, says kids deliberately disassociate from memories of the separation to avoid negative emotions. But as a result, many parents have no idea what their children went through in detention.
“They are working in a vacuum,” said Chadwick, the Kids in Need of Defense attorney. “They have to undergo the task of finding out, ‘What happened to my child and what can I do to fix it?’”
It’s the most painful and worst thing that’s happened in my life. Victoria, a parent who was separated from her son last May
Vicente, who asked that HuffPost use a pseudonym to protect his safety, says his 9-year-old daughter gets angry when he asks her about the separation. They were reunited back in Guatemala in late September, four months after crossing the border.
He says she often covers her face with a pillow and cries at night while thinking about what happened in detention. But when Vicente asks for details, a scared look comes across the child’s face and she says, “What do you care? Why is it important to you?” Although she used to be friendly and polite, he says, she now constantly lashes out at him and recently hit her 4-year-old sister.
Teresa Silvestre’s 13-year-old nephew also won’t talk to her about what happened when he was taken from his father after crossing the border last May. The teenager has been permanently separated from his dad, who was deported back to Guatemala and decided his son should stay in the U.S. because of violent gang threats.
“Most days he is shut down,” said Silvestre, a Florida-based real estate agent who sponsored her nephew out of detention. “I keep telling him, ‘Let it out,’ and, ‘It’s sad not to be with them, but you have to talk about it.’”
Two weeks ago, she says, the boy woke up crying after having a dream that his dad had been killed, and once a week he knocks on her door in the middle of the night to say he’s scared.
Self-Harm In Detention
Cohen, the child psychiatrist, says she worries most about children who become quiet and withdrawn, especially in detention. “They are highly susceptible to self-destructive behavior,” she said. “We have kids as young as 7-years-old who have tried to kill themselves.”
Some children who were separated under zero tolerance were detained for more than six months, and roughly 60 kids continue to be detained while they await sponsors. Chadwick worked with an 8-year-old who would scratch himself to the point of bleeding after he was separated from his dad last May and detained for half a year. She says the child now lives with family in the U.S. and remains permanently separated from his father, who was deported back to Honduras.
“The longer they are detained, the more they deteriorate psychologically,” said Castillo, the clinical psychologist. “The depression and the anxiety makes them cut [so] they feel a release.”
Cohen says self-harming behavior is often “highly addictive” and can continue even once children are reunited with their parents.
Paulo, who requested a pseudonym to protect his ongoing asylum claim, says his 9-year-old son developed suicidal thoughts and began to hurt himself after they were separated last May. According to a psychological evaluation his lawyer sent HuffPost, the boy hit his head on a bunk bed in the shelter and repeatedly said, “I am going to die.” He also told his shelter counselor he wanted to take a sharp pencil, or part of a fan, and cut his leg.
Months after being reunited with his father in July, the child began regularly biting his right hand so hard that his knuckle swells up and bruises, which Paulo thinks is related to the trauma of being separated.
“He’s very sad all the time,” said the Brazilian father, who now lives in Philadelphia. “He’s a completely different child than he was before.”
Deisy Ramirez, who is from El Salvador, said her 15-year-old daughter also became suicidal after they were separated in December; the teenager was transferred to a New York-based hospital in March. They are now reunited in Seattle and the teenager is on antidepressants, but Ramirez knows the experience will stay with her for life.
“This is very hard for me,” she said, breaking into tears over the phone. “Sometimes I feel guilty because I took the decision to come here.”
Many parents are also traumatized from the experience of family separation, which affects their ability to support their children and help them heal, according to psychologists.
“The role of a parent is to provide comfort and security,” said Muñiz. “But these parents are [also] in a constant state of tension and anxiety and can’t fully provide that.”
Matías’ teacher says that he needs more help with his homework, but Victoria barely has time to sleep.
She gets headaches whenever she talks about what happened at the border and worries her son will be taken from her again. She says she feels “flattened,” but is too busy struggling to provide food and shelter to deal with her own mental health.
“I’m all alone,” she said, “and my feelings are about my son and what is going on with him.”
She and Matías are both in the process of seeking asylum, and if she isn’t granted status, she could be deported back to Guatemala.
Victoria says lately she’s noticed slight improvements in her son’s behavior and that she plans to take him to a psychologist soon. She’s also looking forward to them celebrating his birthday together this year, with a vanilla cake and pizza.
But the mother says it’s still painful to see him keep so much bottled up, and that since the separation, the “great love my child and I had together has gone away.”
“He doesn’t talk to me the way he used to talk in a happy way before,” Victoria said, “and so that hurts me again.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified Paulo’s lawyer as his “former” lawyer.