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Separated migrant children suffered PTSD, trauma, report says

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/4/2019 Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
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Migrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy suffered a wide range of mental trauma, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a report released Wednesday.

The children, many of whom had already endured extreme mental and physical trauma in their home countries, were hit with a second round of distress when they were separated by U.S. officials, according to the report from the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency responsible for caring for the separated children.

The children exhibited signs of fear and anxiety but were apprehensive about sharing that information since they viewed mental health experts as working with "the enemy," the report says.

"Program directors and mental health clinicians reported that children who believed their parents had abandoned them were angry and confused," the report says. "Other children expressed feelings of fear and guilt and became concerned for their parents' welfare."

The report is the first comprehensive accounting of the psychological damage inflicted by the administration's "zero tolerance" policy that officially started in 2018 and led to at least 2,800 families being separated along the border.

Endless fear: Undocumented immigrants grapple with anxiety, depression under Trump

The administration came under so much criticism – from Democrats, Republicans and even members of President Donald Trump's own family – that Trump ended the use of family separations as a policy in June 2018. A week later, a federal judge ordered the administration to reunite all those families.

Immigration advocates and mental health experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, warned about the long-term damage to those children from being separated from their parents and placed in prison-like conditions for prolonged periods of time.

Wednesday's report is the first to quantify those complaints.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the findings reinforced that Trump's family separation policy amounted to "state-sanctioned child abuse." Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he doubted whether the administration would take the steps needed to improve conditions for minors in immigration detention.

"These reports validate what we have long known, the Trump administration’s cruel and chaotic immigration policies are taking a damning toll on children and their mental health," Thompson said in a statement. "The Trump administration has yet again failed to protect the most vulnerable – and has not shown they can make substantial improvements."

Making matters more difficult, the HHS inspector general released a separate report Wednesday that found the government often failed to screen clinicians and caseworkers who were hired in a hurry to care for the influx of children.

All facilities caring for minors must conduct an FBI criminal background check and a Child Protective Services check to ensure workers do not have a history of abusing or neglecting children in other states. The inspectors found 11 facilities allowed dozens of employees to begin working with children without any proof that they completed the required background checks.

HHS "must address the shortcomings we identified and better ensure that similar issues do not recur in the future," the report concludes.

In a statement, the Department of Health and Human Services said it has taken "reasonable" steps to address the problems highlighted in the reports. The department has focused on finding sponsors for children more quickly so they're out of custody, the statement said, and it also hired an unspecified number of additional counselors, worked to develop an internship program so college and university students can work in shelters for minors and provided more training for clinicians.

"HHS will continue to develop and implement ongoing improvements to the UAC program delivering on our mandate to provide compassionate, quality care to the children we serve," the statement read.

Both Inspector General reports were based on inspections of 45 HHS shelters, including the two massive emergency shelters opened in Homestead, Florida, and Tornillo, Texas, that were used to house children entering the system last year.

Family separations ramped up in the summer of 2017 when the Trump administration started a pilot program in Texas to charge all undocumented border crossers with criminal violations, a change from previous administrations that treated first-time illegal crossings as mostly civil infractions.

Migrant parents were transferred to adult detention centers to await prosecution while their children were transferred to the care of HHS. That program was kept a secret, but in April 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that “zero tolerance” would be the new policy of the Justice Department.

The policy officially ended with Trump's executive order, but family separations continue, albeit in more limited circumstances. The Trump administration has separated at least 389 children since Judge Dana Sabraw's order in cases where federal immigration officials determine that a parent poses a danger to a child or the parent faces serious criminal charges and must be transferred to adult detention facilities to await trial.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Separated migrant children suffered PTSD, trauma, report says

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