Migrant families traumatized by Trump's separations could face lifetime of health problems
Samayra's son stopped eating after he was taken from his father at the Texas border in June 2018 under the Trump administration's zero-tolerance family separation policy.
The boy, who was seven at the time, and his father came to the U.S. seeking refuge after fleeing violence and poverty in their native Honduras.
But after he was sent to a shelter in New York, the boy didn't know if he would ever see his father again. He survived at the shelter mostly on crackers and juice, said Samayra, his mother.
When the boy was finally reunited with his father back in Texas a month later, the boy was so emaciated, his family barely recognized him, Samayra said.
The trauma didn't end after the boy and father were reunited and moved to Los Angeles to live with relatives.
He became quiet and withdrawn. He had trouble at school. He couldn't concentrate on his homework.
"He didn't have a desire to do anything," said Samayra, who agreed to an interview provided that her full name not be used because her immigration case is still pending.
He would get up from bed at night after being woken up by terrible nightmares.
When asked what was wrong, the boy would say he had dreamed he was back at the shelter.
"He was afraid he wasn't going to see his dad again," Samayra said.
The boy's troubles show how families separated at the border under Trump's zero-tolerance policy continue to experience mental health problems as a result of the trauma they endured more than two years ago, mental health experts say.
Despite being reunited, many children and families who were separated continue to struggle with a wide range of mental health problems that include anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, guilt, fear of separation, and changes in behavior, mental health experts say.
On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden vowed that under his administration, the Justice Department and other investigative agencies will determine who was responsible for the zero-tolerance family separation policy and whether their conduct was criminal.
"I'm not going to tell the Justice Department who they should prosecute and who they should not," Biden said during a press conference to update the transition. "But there will be a thorough, thorough investigation of who was responsible and whether or not the responsibility is criminal."
In November 2019, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration was liable for the trauma inflicted on families separated at the border under the zero-tolerance policy and ordered the government to provide mental health counseling to children and parents who experienced psychological injury.
California-based agency nonprofit Seneca Family of Agencies was awarded a $14 million contract in March to contact separated families and connect those who wished treatment with mental health care counselors.
The program ends in June and advocates are rushing to contact as many families as possible.
Without counseling, mental health experts say, the children and parents could suffer a lifetime of mental and physical health problems.
"There is strong scientific consensus that early life adversity can lead to not just mental health issues down the road and into adulthood but also physiological and medical complications — heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, poor socialization, or disruptive attachments," said Dr. Cesar Berdeja, a child and adolescent psychiatry specialist who has worked with unaccompanied migrant children. "So being able to form healthy, sound relationships can be impacted by having endured trauma of this level."
Most of the separations that took place at the border involved families from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The families were already "fleeing abhorrent community violence, fear, poverty, domestic violence, trafficking," Berdeja noted.
The family separations that took place under the zero-tolerance policy added to their trauma, he said.
"So to further burden vulnerable individuals that is an important recognition of why these kids and families should be offered services," Berdeja said.
Johanna Navarro-Perez, who oversees the Seneca Family of Agencies program to contact and connect families who were separated at the border with mental health services, echoed those comments.
"We are talking about (people) who were fleeing other sorts of state-sanctioned violence or traumatic events and then came here and at the hands of this government were also subjected to violence and trauma. Having your child ripped away from your arms is violent and traumatic," Navarro-Perez said.
Parents skeptical of help
Contacting the families, many of whom remain in the U.S. while their asylum cases are pending in immigration courts, has not been easy, she said.
Incomplete and outdated information provided by the government had made it difficult to track down many of the families, Navarro-Perez said.
The coronavirus pandemic has added to those difficulties, Navarro-Perez said. Seneca's outreach team couldn't go door-to-door or travel to locate the families, which is their practice. And families who experienced trauma and accepted counseling were unable to receive their therapy face-to-face, and needed to be provided tablets, reliable internet connection and other technical assistance that wasn't anticipated.
Advocates face another challenge. Many of the parents are skeptical of attempts to contact them even if they are experiencing mental health problems because of the mistrust and fear generated from being separated by the government.
"When we call them, they are already going to be skeptical of us," Navarro-Perez said. "If we are calling them and saying, 'Oh, we got your phone number from the federal government, the same federal government that separated you from your child."
Advocates are trying to contact over 2,200 families who are eligible for mental health services.
As of Jan. 6, about 575 families had been contacted. Of those, about 282 families have accepted services. Another 206 have declined services, according to Seneca data. The remainder is undecided.
Fear of abandonment hasn't gone away
More than two years after they were reunited, children who were separated from their parents at the border still live in fear of being abandoned by their parents, Navarro-Perez said.
"Some of the kids had no idea what was going on and so thought their parents had abandoned them or (left) them and thought that for the duration of the separation," she said. "So that is going to impact the child-parent relationship and the trust between parent and child, even though that is not what actually happened."
Some parents also feel guilty about what their children went through, she said.
"And that can be a very debilitating feeling to carry around with you," she said.
How children and parents separated at the border process the trauma they experienced varies from family to family, said Crystal Reed, Seneca's outreach coordinator.
She has found that younger children were affected the most by the trauma of being separated from their parents, she said.
Some of the children were as young as 18 months old when they were separated from their parents at the border, court filings show. More than 400 of the children were younger than 4.
"I've noticed a little bit of a pattern," Reed said. "In sleeping patterns and eating patterns or personality differences."
Before they were separated some children "might have been a happy, playful, energetic kid," she said. But now they "might be more reserved and withdrawn. ... The things that they enjoyed doing before, they might not enjoy those things anymore."
Others have trouble being dropped off at school because they are afraid they might not see their parent again, Reed said.
Some parents report trouble sleeping at night.
"Some of the parents tell me, 'I can't sleep at night. I'm really stressed all the time. Or just really tearful. When I think about what happened to me, it's either avoidance, like we don't talk about it. I don't want to think about it, or when I do it's just really debilitating, really difficult to go back to that memory,'" Reed said.
Thousands of children separated from parents
In the spring of 2018, nearly 3,000 children were forcibly separated from their parents at the border as part of a zero-tolerance policy. The policy was aimed at deterring a wave of migrant families, mostly from violence and poverty-stricken regions in Central America and Mexico, from coming to the U.S. and asking for asylum.
Trump argued that migrant families aided by human-smuggling organizations were exploiting "loopholes" in the nation's immigration system by traveling to the U.S. without documents and then requesting asylum knowing they would be released while their cases were pending in immigration courts.
Advocates maintained they were fleeing violence and other dangerous conditions and had a right to come to the U.S. to seek asylum.
Under the policy, parents who crossed the southern border illegally faced criminal prosecution and were held in detention centers near the border while their children, some as young as 18 months old, were taken away and sent to shelters all over the U.S.
Trump signed an executive order ending the policy on June 20, 2018, following an international outcry over the separation of children from their parents.
A federal judge ordered the Trump administration on June 26, 2018, to reunite the families.
It was revealed later that more than 1,000 additional families had been separated under a pilot program that the Trump administration ran in the El Paso area for months starting in the fall of 2017.
Parents sue Trump administration
In July 2018, three parents who had been separated from their children under the zero-tolerance policy filed a class-action lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in San Francisco.
The lawsuit argued that the trauma the Trump administration inflicted on migrant families through its "extraordinary, deliberate and needless" separation policy violated their due process and equal protection rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.
The government was therefore responsible for providing screening and mental health services to address that trauma, the lawsuit said.
"The legal point was that the government was taking individuals into custody and then creating great and inhumane harm," said Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the pro bono public interest law firm Public Counsel, which along with the law firm, Sidley Austin, represented the families.
"The government can't do that," Rosenbaum said. "The government can take persons into custody for alleged violations of the law. But what it cannot do is expose those individuals to great harm and not remediate that harm."
'Fainted in terror'
One of the parents, a 37-year-old Indigenous woman from Guatemala, identified in the lawsuit as "J.P.," said she had entered the U.S. near San Luis, Arizona, around May 17, 2018, with her 16-year-old daughter.
The woman said she had fled death threats from a former partner who had sexually abused and beaten her, the lawsuit said.
The woman's native language is a Mayan dialect, and she could not speak or understand English and spoke very little Spanish, and therefore she could not communicate with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials who detained her, the lawsuit said.
The woman said she and her daughter were held with about 150 other detainees in a windowless room with no beds, showers or private toilets and lights kept on 24 hours a day, the lawsuit said.
On about May 20, guards came and took her daughter away, the lawsuit said. The daughter "fainted in terror" when she realized what was happening, and injured her mouth "that left her face swollen for days," the lawsuit said.
The woman was detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Irvine, California, while her daughter was held at a shelter in Phoenix, the lawsuit said.
Long-term psychological effects
The woman had no contact with her daughter until June 22, when she was allowed to speak to her by telephone, the lawsuit said.
"Until then, Ms. P feared that she would never see or speak to her daughter again," the lawsuit said.
While at the shelter, the daughter could not speak about being separated from her mother without crying, the lawsuit said.
A social worker who evaluated the daughter said she showed signs of depression, anxiety, adjustment to trauma, and traumatic grief, the lawsuit said.
The mother reported "almost always having upsetting thoughts about being
separated from her daughter, and repeatedly experiences bad dreams or nightmares," the lawsuit said.
A social worker who evaluated her said she was displaying symptoms of
post-traumatic stress disorder, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit also included statements from mental health experts who said that "forcible separation of children from their parents is a traumatic event that can have both immediate and long-term psychological consequences if left unaddressed by professional care."
Judge orders government to pay for mental health care
U.S. District Court Judge John Kronstadt recommended the Trump administration reach a settlement to pay for mental health services, Rosenbaum said.
The families negotiated a settlement with the Trump administration for months but just "when we thought it was all but accomplished," the White House rejected the deal, Rosenbaum said.
"So we had lost real-time in real people's lives where the trauma had created even more suffering," Rosenbaum said.
After the deal fell through, Kronstadt agreed to grant an injunction, and ordered the government to pay for mental health services for children and parents who had been separated, Rosenbaum said.
In his order, Kronstadt rejected the contention by government lawyers that the lawsuit should be dismissed and agreed with the parents that the government was responsible for trauma inflicted on them as a result of the family separations.
Trump administration lawyers initially filed a motion to appeal Kronstadt's ruling, but withdrew the motion in February, clearing the way for the contract to be awarded in March to Seneca Family of Agencies.
The decision to drop the appeal was startling, Rosenbaum said, given that the Trump administration has vigorously appealed other unfavorable rulings to its hard-line immigration policies as far as the Supreme Court.
Rosenbaum saw the decision not to appeal as an acknowledgment that the case was indefensible.
"This deliberate policy, which the government initially denied what was really going on here, it's going to go down in the annals of American history as one of the most cruel attempts in terms of not respecting the sanctity of the human family," Rosenbaum said.
Rosenbaum praised the families who are now coming forward and receiving mental health services.
"It's an extraordinary testament to the strength of these families that they are seeking mental health services and that they are working through" their trauma, Rosenbaum said.
After the contract was awarded in March, Seneca launched a campaign to reach out to separated families across the country and inform them of the program, called Todo Por Mi Familia, which in Spanish means, All For My Family. The states with the largest number of separated families are California, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Washington.
The campaign includes a hotline, 844-529-3327, a web page, and Facebook page. Several Latin celebrities have also recorded videos promoting the program, among them actor, singer and former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres, actor Eugenio Derbez, singer Roselyn Sanchez, actor Carlos Ponce and actor Cristian de la Fuente.
Meanwhile, Samayra and her son, who is now 10, have received mental health counseling through the program.
Samayra came separately to the U.S. with her 7-month-old daughter in December 2018 after traveling through Mexico from Honduras to escape dangerous conditions and reunite with her husband and son.
But unlike her son and husband, she and her daughter were not separated after being apprehended by the Border Patrol in Texas, Samayra said.
Samayra said she and her son began receiving mental health counseling in March, making them among the first families to accept treatment under the program.
The counseling her son received has helped him process the trauma he experienced.
"He's doing a lot better," she said.
She also had a message for other families who were separated at the border:
"I want to recommend that other families be open to accepting this help," she said. "It has helped us a lot."
Todo Por Mi Familia
Here are ways to find out more information about Todo Por Mi Familia, the program administered by Seneca Family of Agencies to connect migrant families separated at the border with mental health counseling paid for by the federal government under a court order.
Todo Por Mi Familia Hotline: 844-529-3327
Todo Por Mi Familia Email: email@example.com
Todo Por Mi Familia Facebook Page: facebook.com/Todo-Por-Mi-Familia-110726410630900/
Seneca’s website: senecafoa.org/todopormifamilia/
General questions about Todo Por Mi Familia: 323-326-8287
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