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At Congressional Forum, Social Worker And Formerly-Detained Moms Testify About Horrific Conditions At Karnes

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In a forum on family detention organized by leading House Democrats yesterday, a social worker testified about the devastating abuse she witnessed while working at the Karnes family detention facility, including the denial of basic medical care for sick children.

“What I saw during my time at Karnes made clear that the effects of family detention have the potential to negatively impact the level of functioning of these individuals for generations to come,” Olivia López, a social worker who resigned from the Texas facility in April, told the panel of House members.

“The practices and procedures I witnessed are abusive and create a situation where families cannot feel safe, exacerbate levels of anxiety, increase depression, and can lead to suicidal ideation and attempts.”

The social worker testified that she was frequently asked to downplay incidents, and that she was asked “to lie to federal officials and withhold information from mothers about their rights.”

López was joined by two formerly-detained mothers fleeing violence, one of whom was detained at Karnes for 315 days with her three young children, who were also present at yesterday’s forum.

According to testimony from López, mothers were turned away by staff “even when they presented serious medical issues. This medical neglect resulted in emergencies where infants and toddlers had to be taken by ambulance or by halo flight to the hospital for emergency surgery.”

In one incident, a mother pleaded with nursing staff four times to examine her toddler, who was suffering from severe abdominal pain. The child was finally sent to a children’s hospital, where he underwent an emergency appendectomy.

In another incident, a seven-week-old infant was airlifted to a children’s hospital for emergency surgery. There, medical staff discovered he was suffering from a cranial bleed. Like others, the mother had also been forced to plead with Karnes staff to examine her sick child.

The two mothers present at yesterday’s forum also testified about their horrific experiences while detained at Karnes. One of the mothers, Sonia, said she was compared to a dog by Karnes staff. She was also told that she would never leave the facility alive, and that she would get buried in facility grounds.

According to Sonia, one woman miscarried while in detention, and another two detainees attempted suicide. One of those women was later deported back to Honduras. Sonia said her young children have been traumatized and constantly fear they will have to return to the facility.

One report from the Lexington Herald-Leader describes Rep. Grace Napolitano tearing up with emotion during the testimony.

“When I visited the Karnes and Dilley detention facilities earlier this year, hundreds of mothers grabbed my hands – telling me they were not criminals – and begging for their release while their children broke into tears,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren said.

“They told me about insufficient medical care, spoiled food, dirty water and abusive treatment by prison guards. These are images I will never forget. I left that visit even more convinced that the family detention policy should end and women and children should be released from custody as soon as possible. Now that a Federal Court has ruled likewise, DHS should begin the process of closing down family detention centers immediately.”

“What I saw on my visits to Dilley and Karnes was shocking,” said Rep. Judy Chu. “The bleak, barracks-like conditions these women and children were held in reminded me of the Japanese Internment camps. And like those camps, the damage of detention is long lasting.”

“Prolonged detention re-traumatizes families, breaks apart the parent-child relationship, and has serious cognitive effects on children. I appreciate hearing from today’s witnesses who are bravely documenting what they experienced inside these facilities. It is my hope that an end to this sad chapter will come very soon, and we can turn to a more humane and just way of treating refugee families seeking protection in our country.”

“I strongly believe that our family detention system must be halted immediately,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard said. “During my recent visits to the detention facilities at Karnes and Dilley, I was heartbroken at the sight of the mothers and children suffering in confinement. I heard stories of abusive staff and woefully inadequate medical care.”

“Unfortunately, the conditions described by the women were not isolated incidents. That is why it is critical for us to hold forums like this, and spread the truth about the family detention system to as wide an audience as possible.”

As Elise Foley and Dayana Morales Gomez noted in their Huffington Post piece yesterday, advocates are hoping recent momentum shuts down the practice of family detention entirely, including a court decision last week to release hundreds of women and children from facilities like Karnes.

The forum on ending family detention, organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Democratic Members of the House Judiciary Committee and with support from the Congressional Tri-Caucuses, is available to watch in its entirely below.

A statement on the House hearing from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including quotes from Reps. Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, is available to read here.

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