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Texas Tribune: The Trump Administration Knew Family Separations Would Harm Children

 

It’s no secret that the Trump administration’s family separation plans were cruel and chaotic, but new details keep emerging that show the incredible depths of their callousness. On the heels of the DHS Inspector General report that showed they were prepared to separate as many as 26,000 children from parents, the new joint piece from the Texas Tribune and Center for Public Integrity finds that the Trump administration was well aware of the emotional and mental health traumas children separated from their parents would suffer, but moved forward with the plans anyway. 

The article is excerpted below and can be read in full here 

Newly obtained government documents show how the Trump administration’s now-blocked policy to separate all migrant children from parents led social workers to frantically begin tracking thousands of children seized at the southern border and compile reports on cases of trauma.

In June 2018, months after the Trump administration began its so-called “zero tolerance” policy to deter migrants trying to enter the United States, an employee working for the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement described a 5-year-old’s despair at a shelter. “Minor was separated at the border from his biological mother. Minor was tearful when he arrived and would not speak or engage in conversation with anyone,” the caregiver wrote in a report. This document and others shed light on a social experiment that was both cruel and chaotic.

Reports of traumatized children were forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which is charged with ensuring that national security policies respect constitutional rights. A Center for Public Integrity and NPR investigation earlier this year found that the office failed to assist children whose suffering was documented in hundreds of similar complaints the office received last year.

The most recent internal documents Public Integrity reviewed add to scathing criticism from the Homeland Security inspector general’s office, which reported on Nov. 25 that it couldn’t verify how many children were separated by the zero tolerance policy, which began gradually in late 2017 and ended in June 2018. Tracking was flawed because U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers didn’t accurately record possible family relationships between adults and 1,233 children detained between October 2017 and mid-February 2019, the inspector general concluded.

… Most of the internal government emails reviewed by Public Integrity were written during the height of zero tolerance, which ended in late June 2018 after a court order and public outcry. Other documents show Refugee Resettlement staff or contractors’ observations, which then were forwarded to Homeland Security, about distraught children placed in shelters.

A 10-year-old held in a shelter for two months was found on the floor, crying and holding his hand. “My hand hurts because I got mad about my case and I hit the wall,” the boy reportedly said in July 2018. A 12-year-old boy reported “suicidal ideations” after separation from an aunt and a cousin in June 2018, according to a document. In a July 2018 report about a 9-year-old, a case worker wrote the girl “reported that her uncle was murdered by a local gang.”

After a federal judge ordered Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and Refugee Resettlement on June 26, 2018, to reunite families, emails and other documents show refugee office staff and contractors were pressed into service.

“All resources available to comply with court order,” reads a summary of what’s labeled as a meeting with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “We must do everything to identify parents, contact them, and make strides to reunify them or [allow children] to go to another sponsor if the parents want.”

Given the poor quality of records, Health and Human Services officials rushed to use DNA testing to match parents and children.

“DNA kits,” a message to staff advised, “will be sent to programs with separated children 0-4 on week of July 2nd and DNA kits will be sent to programs with separated children 5 and up on week of July 9th.”

DNA collection is controversial. News reports in July featured mothers and a director at a migrant mothers’ shelter claiming they were told parents would have to pay for DNA testing. Health and Human Services denied it was charging fees for the testing and said it was covering costs for collections.

Documents also show that social workers anxiously sought supervisors’ guidance on how to respond to Central American U.S.-based consular officials, who were asking for information about migrant children scattered nationwide.

Robert Carey, a Refugee Resettlement director in the Obama administration, told Public Integrity that most of the office’s staff are social workers who were put in an “ethical” dilemma with the zero tolerance policy.

“Not only was it inhumane,” he said, “it was extraordinarily poorly managed.”

… Trump’s zero tolerance has ended, but CBP continues to have the authority to separate children from adults who are not legal guardians, including aunts, uncles and grandparents. It also has the authority to separate children based on a parent’s prior immigration violations, if CBP wants to refer that parent for prosecution. Officers have also separated children due to parents’ criminal histories or suspected ties to gangs — decisions that at times have been based on false allegations.