Migrant children who were separated from their parents by U.S. agents at the U.S.-Mexican border last year suffered significant distress, feelings of abandonment and other serious mental health issues, a government watchdog concluded Wednesday.
The inspector general's office at the Department of Health and Human Services said the plight of the separated children — at least 2,500 and likely many more — was worse than for the migrant children who were kept with their parents after the undocumented families, mostly from Central American countries, crossed the border to flee violence and poverty in their homelands to seek asylum in the United States.
The report, based on interviews with about 100 mental health workers who had interactions with the separated children, was the first attempt by the government to assess the effects of the breakup of the families. The American Civil Liberties Union, which won court orders to force the government to return the children to their parents, said the average separation lasted 154 days, although some of the children are still believed to be separated from their parents.
Tears, anger, confusion
The watchdog said those caring for the children reported that some cried inconsolably, while others believed their parents had abandoned them and were angry and confused.
"Other children expressed feelings of fear or guilt and became concerned for their parents' welfare," the report said.
In one instance, the report said a boy, about 7 or 8 years old, was separated from his father and did not know why, but believed that his father had been killed and that he would be, too.
"This child ultimately required emergency psychiatric care to address his mental health distress," a program director told investigators.
One clinician, according to the report, told investigators, "You get a lot of ‘my chest hurts,' even though everything is fine [medically]. Children describe symptoms — `every heartbeat hurts,' ‘I can't feel my heart' — of emotional pain."
The children were separated from their parents starting in 2017, but such actions were officially undertaken in April 2018 under an edict from former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who called for "zero tolerance" of migrants trying to enter the U.S.
"If you cross the border unlawfully ... then we will prosecute you," Sessions said at the time. "If you smuggle an illegal alien across the border, then we'll prosecute you. ... If you're smuggling a child, then we're going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law."
Outcry spurs change
But after an international outcry about the policy and criticism from within the U.S., President Donald Trump abandoned the separation of children in June 2018, although the government has subsequently acknowledged that perhaps more than 700 have been split up from their parents since then in continuing fraught circumstances at the border.
Trump has made protection of the border and policies to thwart illegal immigration the hallmark of his presidency. He has vowed to extend the border wall extensively as he ramps up his 2020 re-election campaign.
Even as the inspector general's report was released, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed concern Wednesday about the Trump administration's recent decision to remove legal limits on how long migrant children can be detained, saying it clearly flouts international law.
She said that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children can be detained only "as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time."
"If they are going to make it indefinite, that is much worse," she told reporters in Geneva. "It's against all the legal conventions and international human rights law and the laws for the child."
Her assessment came in the wake of the announcement last month by the Department of Homeland Security that it was ending the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement, a legal ruling that said the government could not hold migrant children in detention for more than 20 days.
The White House called the Flores rule outdated, saying that it did not account for the large increase in Central American migrant families and children entering the United States in recent years.