Despite what some political commentators at select news networks have claimed, immigrant children are not being held at the equivalent of a “summer camp” by the U.S. government. As photos shared by the government and private companies running detainment facilities focus on classrooms with cute plastic chairs and blackboards, and on playgrounds with clean, up-to-date equipment, the real circumstances of child immigrant detainment couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Abuse can happen in any environment and institutional environments often serve as a cover, where abusers are able to control their victims’ contact with the outside world. We also must understand that abuse doesn’t always look like bruises and scars, and that not every horror story involves physical harm.
With that in mind, here are just a few elements of the horror stories immigrant kids are being forced to endure on a daily basis under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policies.
Separation From Parents
Not every detainee in these camps has been forcibly separated from their parents. They hold unaccompanied minors, who arrive in the U.S without a guardian, while the government attempts to find a responsible adult for the child. Under Trump’s recent zero-tolerance rules, however, the number of children who are there after being taken from parents has skyrocketed. One whistleblower said that she worried about the facilities being able to hire enough staff to keep up with the numbers of kids, according to MSNBC‘s interview with Michael Avenatti.
No Hope Of Reunion
Meet Samir, Levis’s six yr old boy (pic taken after we read his mother’s letter to him). For the first hour, he kept saying “not true” when we would tell him his mami loved him and she sent us to him. He asked us to take this to his mami – he said it showed a princess like her. pic.twitter.com/4968nMIF74
— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) June 21, 2018
As a kid, what’s scarier than being separated from your parents? The fear you’ll never see them again. A certain GOP candidate recently compared the sound of terrified kids sobbing in a detainment camp to the sounds heard at a daycare center on a weekday morning. It’s certainly true that many kids cry at every separation. However, the experience of daycare teaches kids over time that their parents will always come back. The experience at detention camp is that some of these kids may never see their parents again.
No Contact With Parents
A daycare worker can always call a child’s parent in a case of real need. If the child is sick, or truly inconsolable, parents or another family member are a phone call away. In the video Avenatti shared in the above MSNBC interview, a worker asks a sobbing child about contacting her parents. However, Avenatti says that his team has still been unable to locate these parents. In some cases, he says, the only way an institution had of connecting a child to the correct parent was a slip of paper with a name on it. He describes toddlers who have lost this slip of paper after being made responsible for it and infants who cannot yet say a parent’s name.
BREAKING: Border Patrol @CBP just gave us this video of the detention facility we toured yesterday in McAllen, Texas. We weren't allowed to bring in cameras, or interview anyone. To be clear: this is government handout video. pic.twitter.com/Zjy80qIZFZ
— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) June 18, 2018
Another major difference between daycare and prison camps for children is that daycare workers can comfort their young charges. Daycare workers give hugs, cuddles, rock babies to sleep and carry kids on their hip like most parents. However, in child detainment camps, workers say they aren’t allowed to hug the kids — and the children aren’t even allowed to hug each other.
Antar Jones left his employment at one of these camps after being asked to translate and tell the children to stop hugging each other. He told Mother Jones that children who had been told their parents were dead were trying to comfort each other.
They were crying and holding each other for dear life, and here comes this shift leader and she thought it was appropriate to say, “Tell them they can’t hug! Tell them they can’t hug!” That’s only a rule you’d enforce if you saw these children not as children, but as a dollar amount.
Cut Off From The Outside World
Exclusive: Unaccompanied children are cautioned not to speak with reporters about their situation pic.twitter.com/kE3fiMV7FD
— Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) June 26, 2018
Many who have escaped abusive relationships must have seen red flags going up Monday night when Rachel Maddow aired a recording taken in a child detainment camp, in which an adult can be heard warning children of the dangers if they speak to anyone outside the camp. “If for whatever reason you tell a reporter,” the adult warns, hinting that children may lose their chance to be reunified with parents.
It’s a classic abuse tactic — warning the victim that ‘tattling’ will make it worse for them.
Adult Expectations Placed On Children
Here is a pic I just took at the McAllen airport of seven young boys of detained parents being transported out of the area by handlers via AA flt 5772 to DFW. Who knows where they are going from there. Sending children 1000 miles away from their parents is a disgrace. #Outraged pic.twitter.com/zrqdIFnsWY
— Michael Avenatti (@MichaelAvenatti) June 20, 2018
We’ve heard the story of an 8-year-old boy being expected to represent himself in immigration court. His case isn’t unique. The ACLU explained a ruling earlier this year, in which a Federal court ruled that immigrant children do not have the right to an attorney if they cannot pay for the services.
Imagine, as an elementary-aged child, having to stand before a judge and argue your own case, while an experienced adult prosecutor argues against you for your deportation.
While other abuses, that pass under the radar more easily, are prevalent in child detention centers, the more egregious and blatant types of abuse are, too, prevalent in institutional systems. Even before Trump’s zero-tolerance policy drastically inflated the number of children in detainment camps, the ACLU reported hundreds of cases in the past decade — and those are just the ones in which the victims went to the ACLU for help.
Between the sudden increase in child detention population, and the fear of reporting, it’s impossible to guess just how many victims of sexual abuse are in child detainment camps at this time. We do know that abusers leverage power over victims and that being an immigrant naturally comes with a specific vulnerability: deportation. Even outside detention centers, it is a risk, as can be seen in the recent New York Times report of a Sheriff’s deputy who molested a four-year-old girl and threatened to deport her mother if reported.
Inside an institution, this kind of cover-up can be even more effective, since the child has no ability to flee, and may have no access to a trusted adult to make a report. The ACLU has obtained at least one specific record of a child being threatened with sexual abuse, concurrent with having his birth certificate thrown out, and at least one case of sexual abuse during a search of a teenage girl.
Release May Not Mean Relief From Abuse
Even when kids are able to leave detention camps, there’s no certainty that officials will release them into the hands of a trusted relative. Washington Post reports that in 2014, some unknown number of unaccompanied minors were accidentally released to sex traffickers rather than their families.
Since then, agencies have improved methods for identifying guardians for minors, but the increased number of children detained currently raises the question again, especially considering that there are reports federal officials don’t have any way of identifying some of the children or reconnecting them to their parents.
Psychiatric Medicine Used To Control Upset Children
In the New Yorker, an emergency room physician in Texas tells the story of an eight-year-old boy, separated from his family. She describes a child who is scared and acting out, with typical behaviors associated with fear and loss.
However, guards standing over the child pressure her to approve psychiatric care to control the behavior. Knowing there is a risk that he’ll just be medicated for control, but also a possibility of helpful counseling, the doctor says she referred the grade-schooler to inpatient care.
Heavy Use Of Psychotropic Drugs Leading To Medical Malpractice
Here are four photos from Shiloh that the little boy I’ve spent time with identified (you’ll see his writing and mine on some of these photos). This place is designated a “residential treatment center.” We now know they’re a bunch of trailers, @SecAzar. pic.twitter.com/oQGTwCaP0w
— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) June 21, 2018
The case above isn’t an isolated incident. Reveal News covered a lawsuit alleging widespread abuse in detention centers. In one internment camp, consisting of a group of trailers, kids describe being held down and forcibly injected. The lawsuit describes detained children being lied to about what drugs are being forced on them. They are threatened with parental contact being withheld if they don’t submit.
Parents describe kids so drugged they are zombielike — unable to walk or interact normally. When Reveal asked a psychiatrist to review medical records, his assessment was that children were being dosed massively in order to keep them docile and obedient — “You don’t need to administer these kinds of drugs unless someone is plucking out their eyeball or some such.”
In an update, Reveal also showed that one doctor behind the forced medication had lost his certification to treat children and adolescents nearly a decade ago — but the federal government has ceased requiring this certification for treatment of children in shelters contracted for Refugee Resettlement.
Torture-Level Abuse Methods
— Lee Bloch (@StructDefunct) June 24, 2018
In Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, allegations aren’t limited to overuse of psychiatric drugs. Teens held at the facility say they were stripped, handcuffed, strapped to chairs, and had bags placed over their heads. MSN reports that the children were seen to be beaten by staff, while restrained with legs and arms shackled, and suffered broken bones and bruises.
Abuse is a risk inside an institution, and the best institutions make every effort to prevent it and protect victims when and if it does happen. When the system engages in mass institutionalization, the risks increase, and when children who have parents and guardians who are capable of caring for them are forced into institutions against the wishes of those parents, the system that forces them there is responsible for the harm done. The American government is responsible for what is being done to these children right now, and the American people must hold the Trump administration responsible for its role.