The Social Effects of Detention on Undocumented Children

When then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance policy in the summer of 2018, the federal guidelines that determined how long U.S. officials could detain children also determined that they would have to be separated from their parents.[1] Migrant children are only supposed to be held in detention for up to 72 hours because of the government’s acknowledgement that detention centers can have long lasting negative effects on children. Not only is the government ignoring this 72 hours rule, they are ignoring the continuous abuse and disastrous effects the detention is having on children.

Reports on childhood trauma set the stage for predicting the lasting social effects on children. The government instituted a policy of 72 hours for detention for children because of the harsh effects detention can have on children.[2] Many have reported that the longer detention stems not because of the huge influx of migrant children, but more attributed to the change in policies for sponsoring children.[3] Families who wish to sponsor a child must submit fingerprints from every adult in their household to the immigration authorities.[4] Many of the sponsoring families will not risk coming forward because they fear deportation or the authorities.[5] The longer the children wait in detention centers, the more likely they are to suffer and either try to harm themselves, escape, or get violent.[6]

PubMed recently conducted a study regarding children in detention centers.[7] The community control group comprised of refugees flown into Australia who were then resettled.[8] The other group comprised of children who arrived by boat and were immediately detained.[9] When compared to a control group, the children who were detained had much higher difficulty scores.[10] Due to the detention, the children had significantly more behavioral, emotional and social difficulties.[11] Although the study had a small sample size, its conclusion indicates that significant problems arise with detention.[12] The goal should be to reduce or eliminate detention of children.

Additionally, a social worker at the University of Houston conducted research on migrant children to further develop the mental issues that can arise.[13] She found that among her cohort, the migrant children have an average of eight traumatic life events leading up to the detention.[14] These life events included kidnapping, sexual assault, and witnessing violent crimes.[15] Additionally, thirty percent of the children were at risk for a depressive disorder and sixty percent of the children were at risk of PTSD.[16] Not only do we need to consider the incredibly traumatic effect detention has on migrant children, we need to understand that their lives before detention may have been incredibly traumatic.

The long-term effects of migrant children detention have yet to be researched; however, many clinicians and psychologists use the baseline of how traumatic events affect a child’s development to predict. Children who are subject to traumatic events may experience a stress response commonly known as fight or flight.[17] Many times if this fight or flight response is prolonged, it can change the brains architecture[18]. The consequences of such include learning difficulties, increased depression, and predisposition to mental health problems.[19]

Also, personal reports from parents who have had children returned to them allow insight into the effects of detention. There are many videos that have gone viral depicting parents being reunited with their children.[20] In these videos, many of the children have a numb and a non emotional look on their face when seeing their parents for the first time.[21] Some do not even recognize their parents and may have latched on to their foster parents.[22] The response is called protective numbing or disassociating which the children have learned from being isolated from their loved ones.[23]

This chronic stress manifests into behavioral, physical, and mental problems. Families who have been finally reunited with their children report that their children have mental health issues and behavioral changes.[24] Children have developmental regressions and are withdrawn.[25] Some cry continuously and isolate themselves.[26] Researchers predict that these mental health effects can have a negative impact on the child’s long-term educational attainment.[27]

In addition to the problems arising due to detainment, the children may experience more difficulties after being reunited with family members. Living with a migrant family may mean that others are also detained. In these situations, one parent often has to care for the family while earning income.[28] The remaining family members who can earn income work have to work longer hours and often will not be able to afford childcare.[29] Children are left alone for longer periods of time, which will result in a different host of problems.

The conditions inside the detention centers cause children to have lasting effects. Detention centers for children can vary from being a campground with swimming pools and cabins to a converted motel with a paved in pool and cement playgrounds.[30] While in a detention center, migrant children who have been released report conditions similar to a prison environment.[31] There are very strict rules that cause the children even more emotional stress. A young girl named Leticia was told she was not allowed to hug her little brother.[32] She also was not allowed to mail her mother because no mail was allowed.[33] Instead, she wrote letters as often as she could get away with writing in her dorm room without being punished.[34] Another child named Diego reported that he behaved because the boy in his class was injected and fell asleep when he misbehaved.[35] These children are often uprooted from their families and flown to a detention center without knowing what is happening. They also do not have the luxury of knowing what happened to their family or how to even contact them. The emotional toll that this will have on a child is unfathomable. Then, the government adds to the burden by placing them in a prison like environment.

Not only are the children facing significant health implications in the long term, they are also subjective to abusive conditions inside the detention facilities. Out of the 3.4 billion dollars paid to operating homes by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, forty four percent of the money went to homes facing allegations of child mistreatment.[36] Among those allegations were inappropriate contact between staff and children and failure to seek medical attention for children.[37] The detention centers also have a history of using injections to control children.[38] A lawsuit was filed in the District Court of California this year alleging child mistreatment and claiming that children were being held down and injected.[39] The children reported that they had to use wheelchairs because they could not walk after the injections.[40]

The Shiloh Treatment Center in Houston has been under investigator for giving children “vitamin” injections that later turned out to be antipsychotic drugs.[41] Medical records indicate that children were being injected with these psychotropic drugs regardless if their families consented.[42]Often children are being given so many drugs, that by the time they are released they need medical care to help wean themselves off the drugs.[43]

Lastly, the abusive conditions are so dire that there have been reports of children dying in facilities. In 2002 a young woman died to asphyxia in a children’s detention center and in 2010, a young man died while being restrained in a closet.[44] Both were later to be determined as homicides.[45] The few incidents of homicides are just the tip of the iceberg when considering all the problems that exist in the children’s detention system. However, it adds to the sheer emotional stress that children face while detained.

Due to the prison like nature of the detention centers, the history of abuse, as well as the traumatic life events children experience even before detention, the detention of children has profound social effects on young migrant children. The long-term social effects have not been determined for these specific events; however, using traumatic life events as a baseline, researchers and clinicians have predicted a wide variety of mental and physical issue that will result from detention.

Not only will the detention of children creating long lasting social and health implications, the financial cost of detaining migrant children in the United States is a financial burden on our system. The New York Times reports that over 12,800 migrant children are in federally contracted shelters in 2018, which is a huge increase from the 2,400 in custody last summer.[46] With reports of each migrant child costing about $750 a day, the 12,800 children detained are costing the American taxpayer a lot of money.

  1. Jack Herrera. A New Report Reveals How Family Separation Led Border Officials to Break the Law. https://psmag.com/news/a-new-report-reveals-how-family-separation-led-border-officials-to-break-the-law
  2. Jack Herrera. A New Report Reveals How Family Separation Led Border Officials to Break the Law. https://psmag.com/news/a-new-report-reveals-how-family-separation-led-border-officials-to-break-the-law
  3. Caitlin Dickerson. Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/us/migrant-children-detention.html
  4. Caitlin Dickerson. Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/us/migrant-children-detention.html
  5. Caitlin Dickerson. Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/us/migrant-children-detention.html
  6. Caitlin Dickerson. Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/us/migrant-children-detention.html
  7. Zwi K et. Al. The impact of detention on the social-emotional wellbeing of children seeking asylum: a comparison with community-based children. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29177563
  8. Zwi K et. Al. The impact of detention on the social-emotional wellbeing of children seeking asylum: a comparison with community-based children. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29177563
  9. Zwi K et. Al. The impact of detention on the social-emotional wellbeing of children seeking asylum: a comparison with community-based children. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29177563
  10. Zwi K et. Al. The impact of detention on the social-emotional wellbeing of children seeking asylum: a comparison with community-based children. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29177563
  11. Zwi K et. Al. The impact of detention on the social-emotional wellbeing of children seeking asylum: a comparison with community-based children. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29177563
  12. Zwi K et. Al. The impact of detention on the social-emotional wellbeing of children seeking asylum: a comparison with community-based children. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29177563
  13. Kevin Loria. Trump now claims migrant children will be reunited with their families. Here are the lifelong psychological consequences these kids face. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-family-separation-and-detention-affect-children-2018-6
  14. Kevin Loria. Trump now claims migrant children will be reunited with their families. Here are the lifelong psychological consequences these kids face. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-family-separation-and-detention-affect-children-2018-6
  15. Kevin Loria. Trump now claims migrant children will be reunited with their families. Here are the lifelong psychological consequences these kids face. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-family-separation-and-detention-affect-children-2018-6
  16. Kevin Loria. Trump now claims migrant children will be reunited with their families. Here are the lifelong psychological consequences these kids face. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-family-separation-and-detention-affect-children-2018-6
  17. John Hopkins University. The mental health impact of separating immigrant children from their parents. https://hub.jhu.edu/2018/06/21/child-separation-immigration-policy-spiegel/
  18. John Hopkins University. The mental health impact of separating immigrant children from their parents. https://hub.jhu.edu/2018/06/21/child-separation-immigration-policy-spiegel/
  19. John Hopkins University. The mental health impact of separating immigrant children from their parents. https://hub.jhu.edu/2018/06/21/child-separation-immigration-policy-spiegel/
  20. Kathi Valeii. What viral reunification videos reveal about the trauma of separated immigrant children. https://psmag.com/social-justice/what-viral-reunification-videos-reveal-about-the-trauma-of-separated-immigrant-children
  21. Kathi Valeii. What viral reunification videos reveal about the trauma of separated immigrant children. https://psmag.com/social-justice/what-viral-reunification-videos-reveal-about-the-trauma-of-separated-immigrant-children
  22. Kathi Valeii. What viral reunification videos reveal about the trauma of separated immigrant children. https://psmag.com/social-justice/what-viral-reunification-videos-reveal-about-the-trauma-of-separated-immigrant-children
  23. Kathi Valeii. What viral reunification videos reveal about the trauma of separated immigrant children. https://psmag.com/social-justice/what-viral-reunification-videos-reveal-about-the-trauma-of-separated-immigrant-children
  24. Samantha Artiga and Barbara Lyons. Family Consequences of Detention/ Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/family-consequences-of-detention-deportation-effects-on-finances-health-and-well-being/
  25. Samantha Artiga and Barbara Lyons. Family Consequences of Detention/ Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/family-consequences-of-detention-deportation-effects-on-finances-health-and-well-being/
  26. Samantha Artiga and Barbara Lyons. Family Consequences of Detention/ Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/family-consequences-of-detention-deportation-effects-on-finances-health-and-well-being/
  27. Samantha Artiga and Barbara Lyons. Family Consequences of Detention/ Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/family-consequences-of-detention-deportation-effects-on-finances-health-and-well-being/
  28. Samantha Artiga and Barbara Lyons. Family Consequences of Detention/ Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/family-consequences-of-detention-deportation-effects-on-finances-health-and-well-being/
  29. Samantha Artiga and Barbara Lyons. Family Consequences of Detention/ Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/family-consequences-of-detention-deportation-effects-on-finances-health-and-well-being/
  30. Dan Berry, et. Al. Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Day in Detention. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer
  31. Dan Berry, et. Al. Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Day in Detention. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer
  32. Dan Berry, et. Al. Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Day in Detention. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer
  33. Dan Berry, et. Al. Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Day in Detention. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer
  34. Dan Berry, et. Al. Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Day in Detention. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer
  35. Dan Berry, et. Al. Cleaning Toilets, Following Rules: A Migrant Child’s Day in Detention. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/us/migrant-children-shelters.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer
  36. Aura Bogado et. al. Migrant children sent to shelters with histories of abuse allegations. https://www.revealnews.org/article/migrant-children-sent-to-shelters-with-histories-of-abuse-allegations/
  37. Aura Bogado et. al. Migrant children sent to shelters with histories of abuse allegations. https://www.revealnews.org/article/migrant-children-sent-to-shelters-with-histories-of-abuse-allegations/
  38. Aura Bogado et. al. Migrant children sent to shelters with histories of abuse allegations. https://www.revealnews.org/article/migrant-children-sent-to-shelters-with-histories-of-abuse-allegations/
  39. Matt Smith and Aura Bogado. Immigrant children forcibly injected with drugs, lawsuit claims. https://www.revealnews.org/blog/immigrant-children-forcibly-injected-with-drugs-lawsuit-claims/
  40. Matt Smith and Aura Bogado. Immigrant children forcibly injected with drugs, lawsuit claims. https://www.revealnews.org/blog/immigrant-children-forcibly-injected-with-drugs-lawsuit-claims/
  41. Matt Smith and Aura Bogado. Immigrant children forcibly injected with drugs, lawsuit claims. https://www.revealnews.org/blog/immigrant-children-forcibly-injected-with-drugs-lawsuit-claims/
  42. Matt Smith and Aura Bogado. Immigrant children forcibly injected with drugs, lawsuit claims. https://www.revealnews.org/blog/immigrant-children-forcibly-injected-with-drugs-lawsuit-claims/
  43. Matt Smith and Aura Bogado. Immigrant children forcibly injected with drugs, lawsuit claims. https://www.revealnews.org/blog/immigrant-children-forcibly-injected-with-drugs-lawsuit-claims/
  44. Aura Bogado et. al. Migrant children sent to shelters with histories of abuse allegations. https://www.revealnews.org/article/migrant-children-sent-to-shelters-with-histories-of-abuse-allegations/
  45. Aura Bogado et. Al. Migrant children sent to shelters with histories of abuse allegations. June 2018. https://www.revealnews.org/article/migrant-children-sent-to-shelters-with-histories-of-abuse-allegations/
  46. Caitlin Dickerson. Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/12/us/migrant-children-detention.html

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