Last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced that it would not renew the license of the Berks County Residential Center, one of three family immigration detention centers run by the federal government. The Texas Department of Family Protective Services is considering a request to license the other two.
As a pediatrician, I am concerned that the federal government’s current policy of detaining children is exacerbating their risk for physical and mental health problems and needlessly exposes them to additional trauma.
Many families fleeing violence in Latin America have already suffered trauma in their home countries – physical and sexual abuse, death threats, exploitation – which leaves serious physical and psychological scars.
In August, I visited the detention center in Berks County, Penn. While the facility has toys and outdoor play areas, it is a detention facility and the families held there fully understand that reality.
I met with families who had been locked up with their children for two to six weeks. Talking about their children, parents related symptoms of depression, anxiety, adjustment disorders, behavioral regressions and suicidality.
The American Academy of Pediatrics – which has been active in developing tools for doctors to protect the health and well-being of immigrant children fleeing violence – expressed concern to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in a July 2015 letter.
We questioned whether the detention centers contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), such as those in Karnes and Dilley in Texas, are capable of providing adequate medical and mental health care to children and whether they are causing more harm to children.
For children in particular, exposure to adverse experiences can have long-term negative effects on their development, which in turn can hurt their educational achievement, productivity, health and longevity.
One mother detained at Berks said that her six-year-old – asked by a health worker to draw what she felt – drew a picture of a house with no door and bars on the windows.
Other published reports catalog similar symptoms of depression and anxiety in children.
The U.S. government doesn’t treat all immigrant children in this manner. When children arrive in the United States unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian, they are placed in the temporary custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which works to reunify the child with relatives living in the United States.
Accompanied children, on the other hand, can remain in the custody of ICE, which may place them with a parent in a detention center.
In July, a federal judge found that policies governing the detention and release of immigrant children should apply equally to unaccompanied and accompanied children.
The ruling requires the government to release children as expeditiously as possible. The court also made clear that children should be released with their parents, a critical point given the harms of family separation.
To protect these vulnerable children from further suffering, the federal government should implement the judge’s ruling swiftly and robustly. These children and families need nothing less.
Dreyer, president-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is director of Pediatrics at Bellevue Hospital, professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics at New York University.