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A Toddler’s Death Following Family Detention

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Yet, the Trump Administration Remains Intent on Drastically Expanding the Detention of Children with Parents

According to Vice News on Monday, a toddler died weeks after being released from an ICE family detention center where she first became seriously ill.  Yet, the Trump administration continues full-speed ahead on drastically expanding family detention.

In March, a 19-month-old toddler – Mariee – “was a healthy toddler with plump cheeks who liked dancing and singing with her mother, and was blissfully unaware of her confinement” at an ICE family detention center in Dilley, Texas.  “One week after arriving at Dilley, Mariee developed a cough, congestion, and a fever of over 104 degrees. During the next two weeks of her confinement, Yazmin [her mother] felt powerless as her daughter got sicker, rebounded, and got sick again, battling a virus that started with a common cold.”   According to a claim filed with the city where the Dilley detention center is located, Mariee and her mother were finally released from detention just as it became clear that Mariee was very ill.  Mariee was admitted to a hospital a day after her release. Her health steadily declined and she died six weeks later.

In spite of this disturbing case and clear health and abuse risks associated with the detention of children, the Trump administration remains intent on drastically expanding indefinite family detention.  The New Yorker reports that the Trump administration is fully engaged in weekly meetings to develop plans to indefinitely detain thousands of asylum seekers, including families.  The administration has also sought and failed to amend a court-administered consent decree that protects children from prolonged detention.  And, now the administration is close to issuing regulations to expand detention of children and plans to do so for prolonged periods.

Clear Health Risks in Detaining Children, Even in Family Detention

Even under the best of conditions in family detention, pediatricians and psychologists have warned that confining children is inherently harmful to children.  Two doctors serving as medical and psychiatric subject matter experts for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties recently stated:

The fundamental flaw of family detention is not just the risk posed by the conditions of confinement—it’s the incarceration of innocent children itself. In our professional opinion, there is no amount of programming that can ameliorate the harms created by the very act of confining children to detention centers. Detention of innocent children should never occur in a civilized society, especially if there are less restrictive options, because the risk of harm to children simply cannot be justified.

Furthermore, these doctors investigated various existing family detention facilities and reported that they are from achieving basic standards of care.

The threats to health and safety of the children are not merely theoretical. In our time monitoring the existing family residential centers, we have uncovered significant weight loss in children that went largely unnoticed by the facility medical staff, including the case of a sixteen-month-old baby boy who lost 31.8% of his body weight over ten days during a diarrheal disease yet was never given IV fluids or sent out to an Emergency Room.  In another case, we identified a 27- day-old infant who had been born in the field during the mother’s journey. Having never been examined by a physician before, this infant was at extremely high risk for medical problems, but was not seen by a pediatrician until the child had a seizure in the facility five days after arrival. He was subsequently diagnosed at an outside hospital with an intracranial bleed likely present since birth and missed by the facility on arrival due to inadequately trained staff. Another facility accident[al]ly vaccinated numerous children with adult doses of vaccine as a result of poor interagency coordination and the unfamiliarity of the providers with pediatric dosing. We found numerous severe child finger injuries (including lacerations and fractures) due to the spring- loaded closure of heavy medical doors (the facility is a converted medium security prison), and even when the problem was identified, mitigation efforts were slow and additional injuries occurred. In another case, we discovered that a facility was using the medical housing unit for punitive segregation of families and children, a violation of medical autonomy and a violation of standards of medical practice.

Even an internal ICE Advisory Committee on Family Residential Centers that was created to “[d]evelop recommendations for best practices at family residential centers” concluded:

DHS’s immigration enforcement practices should operationalize the presumption that detention is generally neither appropriate nor necessary for families – and that detention or the separation of families for purposes of immigration enforcement or management are never in the best interest of children. DHS should discontinue the general use of family detention, reserving it for rare cases….[If] families should be detained [they should be detained] for the shortest amount of time and in the least restrictive setting possible.

The ICE Advisory Committee explained:

Detention in and of itself has been found to be traumatizing and have significant mental and physical health consequences. The indefinite nature of immigration detention may trigger a profound sense of powerlessness and loss of control, contributing to additional severe and chronic emotional distress for asylum seekers. Detaining families undermines family relationships in very damaging ways – for example, adult detainees’ ability to parent is compromised because they lose authority in the eyes of their children (and in reality); parents are unable to protect their children from guards or outside authorities; children blame their parents for being locked up; the stress, fear and powerlessness has a direct effect on children’s behavior and simultaneously undermines parents’ ability to address that behavior. Children are especially impacted; international research has found that the unique vulnerabilities of children place them especially at risk of health and development issues even if the detention is for short periods.243

The American Medical Association (AMA) and the American College of Physicians (ACP) have also strongly opposed family detention. 

ACP continues to oppose family separation because of the significant, life-long, negative health impact on children and their family members,” said Ana María López, MD, MPH, FACP, president, ACP. “The health impact of prolonged family detention would be similar, as it is consistent with experiences known as Adverse Childhood Experiences which result in emotional and physical illness and chronic disease.

AMA President Andrew W. Gurman, M.D. said, “The vast majority of detained families are ultimately released, but the physical and psychological distress of detention can continue, particularly for children.”  

Risk of Abuse in Detention   

In addition to the clear health risks associated with detaining children, there is also a risk of abuse.  CNN recently reported on allegations made in a recent legal complaint:  

The allegations in these documents, as well as recent facility inspection reports and other lawsuits, range from unsanitary conditions and invasive monitoring of mail and phone calls to unair-conditioned rooms in hot Texas summers and dosing children with cocktails of psychotropic drugs disguised as vitamins. At one facility, children recounted being held down for forcible injections, which medical records show are powerful antipsychotics and sedatives.

In another case, The Nation reported that a detained 6-year-old child separated under Trump’s family separation policy was abused by another child in the facility and was forced to sign a statement that she understood it was her responsibility to stay away from her abuser.  

In yet another case, the New York Times reported, “Two youth care workers at Arizona shelters for migrant children have been charged with sexually assaulting immigrant teenagers, according to court records.”

Recently, the ACLU issued a report based upon 30,000 government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that show  “a pattern of intimidation, harassment, physical abuse, refusal of medical services, and improper deportation between 2009 and 2014” in Customs and Border Protection detention facilities.  

Finally, last month, more than 200 sworn statements from detained immigrants – mothers, fathers, children – were filed in federal court describing horrific conditions in immigration detention.  Many came seeking asylum only to be thrown into what most described as “dog cages” and “ice boxes” with highly unsanitary conditions where guards kicked and taunted children, guards inhumanely separated and dehumanized parents and children who were forced to sleep on concrete floors in over-crowded, cold cells, where adults and children used toilets in front of dozens of strangers in the middle of cells, where food and water was often limited, even for young children, and where there was limited to no access to phones.

Trump Administration Remains Intent on Drastic Expansion of Detention of Children

Instead of recognizing the inherent danger to children in detention, the Trump administration remains intent on drastically expanding family detention and indefinitely detaining parents with children.  According to the New Yorker:

Since the middle of July, a group of some twenty government officials has been gathering each week at the headquarters of Customs and Border Protection, in Washington, D.C., to discuss what the Trump Administration should do in the aftermath of the President’s failed zero-tolerance policy….The meetings—which, the official said, were first called by a team at the White House that reports directly to Stephen Miller, the President’s senior adviser on policy—include representatives from the Department of Justice, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. The main focus, the official added, has been to “map out” how the government can detain asylum seekers as they wait for a hearing before an immigration judge, which can take several months….”

Other reports demonstrate that despite opposition from retired generals and flag officers the Department of Defense is working on plans to detain 20,000 migrant children at military facilities.  Furthermore, in June, ICE issued a request for information for up to 15,000 beds for immigrant families.

Moreover, the Trump Administration has repeatedly attacked legal requirements established under the Flores consent decree that protects children from prolonged detention and unsafe detention conditions.  Not only has the administration pressured the Congress to undo the Flores settlement agreement through legislation to allow for prolonged detention of children, it sought to amend the Flores settlement with the court overseeing the matter, a failed effort.      

Finally, the Trump administration intends to issue regulations that would, if implemented, end critical protections for children, according to a report on a draft of the regulation obtained by Washington Post.  The administration is close to issuing the regulations now that the White House Office of Management and Budget has completed its official review.  

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch, a project of America’s Voice, said:  

The facts are clear: a healthy toddler entered family detention, got sick one week later, received what was critical hospitalization only after she and her mother were released from detention. The 19 month old infant died weeks later.  If Mariee had never been detained in the first place, would Mariee still be with us today? Most likely. And that is the single strongest reason why no child should be detained.

Even if medical and detention standards could be theoretically perfected or were perfect in this case, pediatricians and psychologists have said that detention conditions nonetheless put children’s health and psychological well-being at risk, thereby compromising immune systems.  And reports demonstrate that family detention centers consistently fail to meet basic standards. Detaining kids in immigration jails, even with their parents, is bad for kids and inconsistent with the guiding rule of putting the interests of child first. For Mariee, her very young life might have been spared had she not been detained. The Trump administration should learn from this tragedy, as well as from the range of experts decrying this practice, and immediately end its plans to grow family detention.