Guards At A Family Detention Center Refused To Take Her Son To The Doctor. Then He Started Convulsing.

Testimonies from mothers and records obtained by HuffPost show how family detention endangers children's health.
Matt Rota for HuffPost

Within two weeks of arriving at New Mexico’s Artesia Family Residential Center in July 2014, Laura’s 20-month-old son began to convulse.

Laura told medical staff at the detention facility that Michael had a history of febrile seizures back in El Salvador. Those experiences taught her to swiftly treat any new fevers in order to prevent them.

But as her son’s first fever in detention set in, the 24-year-old mother realized what she was up against: hours-long lines at the provisional medical center to get a single dose of Children’s Tylenol and guards who seemed unconcerned with her son’s well-being.

Nine days into the persistent fever, Michael once again woke up hot to the touch. Laura took her son to the medical center for help around 1 a.m., where she told doctors she was concerned he would seize. He was prescribed Children’s Tylenol, rest and lots of fluids.

But Michael didn’t get better. As his temperature continued to rise, Laura said she asked an officer to escort them to the doctor again, but her pleas were ignored. Around 7:23 p.m., he began to seize.

In the past, Michael would regain consciousness in a matter of seconds, vomit and gradually improve. This time, he remained unconscious. An overwhelming panic set in as she propped him up and spoke to him to no avail.

Carrying him in her arms, she rushed to a nearby guard and laid her son at her feet. Laura was sobbing when she arrived, afraid she had lost her only child.

“I told her, ‘My boy died, my boy died,’ because he wasn’t breathing and he was so pale,” she told HuffPost during a interview conducted in Spanish. “He wasn’t responding and I thought in my mind that he had died.”

“It felt like it was a policy: ‘You can’t be nice to these people.’”

- Vanessa Saldivar, project coordinator for the Artesia Pro Bono Project

Laura told HuffPost in detail what she and Michael endured while in Artesia, but asked to use pseudonyms as she awaits a decision on their asylum case. The mother and son were part of the wave of Central American parents and children who arrived at the United States’ southwestern border in unprecedented numbers in 2014 ― most, if not all, fleeing violence in their native countries.

The Obama administration dealt with this surge of asylum-seekers by hastily turning a federal training facility in Artesia, New Mexico, into a temporary 700-bed detention facility in June of that year. The Artesia Family Residential Center closed in December 2014 but was quickly replaced by two separate permanent centers in Texas that can hold more than 3,000 people.

Before Artesia was closed, immigration advocates and human rights watchdogs collected dozens of stories from parents who claimed their children’s health was deteriorating during the months they spent in detention. Complaints about long lines to see a doctor, depression, lethargy and weight loss among children, as well as milestone regressions ― like no longer being able to walk, use the toilet or a return to bottle feeding ― were common.

As the Trump administration ― undeterred by a July 9 rejection of its bid to get rid of the 20-day limit on family detention for immigrants ― fights to expand and lengthen family detention, human rights advocates are concerned that the experiences of parents and children like Laura and Michael will repeat thousands of times over.

“Problems that we observed at Artesia, which were a function of the government’s haste and eagerness to throw up a family detention center, are eerily similar to Trump’s order to hastily expand this inappropriate practice,” said Bradley Jenkins, a lawyer with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. who visited Artesia in September 2014.

After Michael’s seizure began, staffers called an ambulance to bring him to nearby Artesia General Hospital, while the facility’s doctor put an oxygen mask on his face and applied defibrillator pads to his chest. Laura remembers being held back by two staff members as a group of about six doctors or nurses surrounded her son.

Standing about six feet away, Laura said she could see his little body jump up and down with each shock.

“They didn’t let me get close to [him],” Laura said. “I could see his pale little feet ― I watched as they put the little pads on him and I was crying and screaming.”

Laura’s memories of that day, including the date and time of the seizure, as well as the use of an oxygen mask and advanced cardiac life support for her son, are supported by medical records issued by the detention center and obtained by HuffPost. However, the records did not indicate whether the defibrillator pads issued electric shocks, which would indicate whether or not Michael had a cardiac event in addition to the seizure.

“He wasn’t responding and I thought in my mind that he had died.”

- Laura, mother detained with her 20-month-old son.

Laura and her son endured standard prison practices like doling out medication one dose at a time, treating inmates who request medical treatment with suspicion and contempt, and an understaffed medical center that requires detainees to wait in line for up to eight hours a day for even basic medical attention or prescribed medication.

These conditions would make it more difficult for parents to care for sick children, said Dr. Steven J. Goldstein, a New York-based pediatrician who reviewed a redacted version of Michael’s medical records.

Goldstein, who is president of a chapter of the New York State American Academy of Pediatrics, said that, outside of a detention center, a child with multiple febrile seizures like Michael would typically be referred for further evaluation to a pediatric neurologist. He also said that parents like Laura, who was anxious about her son’s care, are typically addressed calmly and compassionately by medical staff.

During the five months she spent meeting with asylum-seekers at Artesia, Vanessa Saldivar ― then a project coordinator for the American Immigration Lawyers Association who worked on pro bono cases at Artesia ― noticed that mothers’ concerns over their children’s health were often dismissed by hostile officers, many of whom frequently told mothers desperate for medicine to simply give their children more water.

“It was not necessary, the harshness, and it was pervasive,” she said. “It felt like it was a policy: ‘You can’t be nice to these people.’”

When asked about Michael’s seizure, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Jennifer D. Elzea said that ICE does not track the number of febrile seizures that take place in detention, but that records of seizures would be in each individual detainee’s medical records.

In this Sept. 10, 2014, file photo, detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.
In this Sept. 10, 2014, file photo, detained immigrant children line up in the cafeteria at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP

Michael continued to have frightening medical episodes, including a cold that progressed to bronchitis and a fever with a temperature so high he was again taken to Artesia General Hospital.

When she wasn’t tending to her child or waiting in line for Children’s Tylenol, Laura said she spent most of her time crying in the room she and her son shared with three other mothers and their children. And the rejection and contempt she continued to experience at the hands of officers only fueled the overwhelming sense of helplessness she felt.

“I was traumatized even more because they had no follow-up system in place,” she said. “I didn’t sleep because I was always touching him, checking that his temperature didn’t go up.”

Laura said she wasn’t allowed to go see the doctors without an officer present, so if a guard refused to take her, Laura would be forced to return to her room with her son untreated.

She said the guard who ignored her plea for help the day of Michael’s seizure felt so guilty after the incident that she started acting nicer, even giving her clothes and a stroller for Michael.

But this kind of remorse was unusual.

Four immigration advocates confirmed to HuffPost that psychological abuse like Laura experienced appeared to be a part of daily life in the family detention centers for their clients. They also corroborated the existence of a pervasive attitude among guards that asylum-seekers like Laura were getting free room and board, three meals a day and free, albeit inconvenient, medical care in the detention centers.

For instance, after Laura tried, unsuccessfully, to ask for more milk for her son, she remembers one guard sneering, “What, did you think everything in the U.S. would be free?”

This kind of thinking frustrates Katy Murdza of the Dilley Pro Bono Project, who tracks medical care issues at the facility that replaced Artesia, the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. She says many families who claim asylum at the U.S. border bring their own supply of over-the-counter or prescription medicines, but they are confiscated by Border Patrol agents.

Alternately, the relative they’re trying to reach in the U.S. has medicine stockpiled, ready and waiting for the child to reach them. But because the government has separated asylum-seekers from their medicines, or the chance to obtain the medicine on their own, they’re obligated to provide these services, Murdza said.

Family detention costs $320 per detainee per day of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” she said. “If people are concerned about Americans not paying for these families’ needs, the best course of action is to release them, at which point they will not be receiving financial support from the government.”

“The moms reasonably get the message that [detention officials] don’t want to help them.””

- Katy Murdza, who tracks medical care issues at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas.

A federal court decision in 2015 limited immigration detention stays for children with their parents to 20 days ― significantly shorter than the four months that Laura and her son spent in Artesia. However, families currently pursuing asylum while in U.S. detention facilities are still finding that their children are exposed to serious health threats in that short timeframe.

Five recent asylum-seekers allege that they or their children faced serious, life-threatening negligence while detained in the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, according to sworn statements taken by bilingual legal staff affiliated with the Dilley Pro Bono Project in 2017 and first reported on by HuffPost.

In the most shocking declaration, an 18-year-old mom from El Salvador, detained with her 2-year-old daughter, described how a pharmacy worker at the detention facility discontinued her daughter’s five-day antibiotic prescription after a single day, against doctor’s orders. Days later, she had to be transported via helicopter to a hospital in San Antonio, where she was diagnosed with a bacterial infection in her lungs and put on antibiotics.

Another mom detained with her daughter said that after several days of continuous vomiting, diarrhea and fever, medical staff did nothing except advise her to drink more water and juice, or use Vicks VapoRub, an over-the-counter topical cough suppressant. Eventually, the child lost eight pounds ― 21 percent of her bodyweight ― and the doctor said the girl was showing signs of bulimia. She was four at the time.

Three of the declarations talk about how tiring, impractical and demoralizing it is to wait in hours-long lines for doctor’s appointments, twice-daily doses of epilepsy medicine and a daily prenatal pill.

Detailing adverse and potentially life-threatening health environments are crucial to understand conditions in family detention, particularly because advocates and attorneys who worked on these asylum cases told HuffPost obtaining medical records was very difficult.

“We obtained some but some of them were wrong. Some of them were just completely inaccurate,” Saldivar said. “Our clients would say, ‘I went to the doctor and they gave him Tylenol for a fever, I told them how he’s losing weight and how he’s lethargic.’ And we would get medical records and it would say nothing of that.”

Activists protest against the Trump administrations recent family detention and separation policies for migrants along the southern border.
Activists protest against the Trump administrations recent family detention and separation policies for migrants along the southern border.
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

When asked about access to medical treatment for asylum-seekers, ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett said that the agency takes the health, safety and welfare of all detained individuals “very seriously,” and that the centers are staffed with nurses, mental health providers, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and physicians. There is also access to dental care and 24-hour emergency care, she said.

But despite round-the-clock care it’s up to the medical staff to determine what constitutes an emergency, said Murdza. Often, she said, mothers are told to get an appointment the next day ― and wait up to eight hours for it.

With waits so long, it’s difficult for families to juggle meal times, phone calls with lawyers or judge whether that time would be better spent letting their sick child simply rest in bed.

The moms reasonably get the message that [detention officials] don’t want to help them,” Murdza said. “They feel hopeless and that there’s no point in going to the medical facility.”

“This is supposed to be a country that protects the rights of minors, but in the detention centers they violate them.”

- Laura, mother detained in Artesia.

Laura eventually obtained the number for an immigration lawyer through another detained mother. She said with his help, she was able to post $8,000 bail. Laura and Michael were released on Oct 28, 2014, and traveled to Northern California, where family awaited them.

Almost four years after her detention, Laura works as a housekeeper and Michael is thriving in elementary school. In January 2021, her asylum case will go before a judge. Today, she’s breathing a sigh of relief that she and her son are physically safe.

While Michael doesn’t have any coherent memories of his time in Artesia, Laura said, he has phobias that suggest the trauma is still with him, including a fear of doctors and medical settings and an aversion to enclosed spaces and small rooms like the one he lived in at the facility.

When she looks back on her experience crossing the border, as well as the time she spent in detention with Michael, she wonders why her son’s life had to be endangered while they were in the custody of the U.S. government.

“This is supposed to be a country that protects the rights of minors, but in the detention centers they violate them,” Laura said.

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