Media Telebriefing: Family Immigration Detention in Berks, Pennsylvania Share

By Olga Byrne

Call featuring:

  • Olga Byrne, Senior Associate, Human Rights First
  • Daniela, asylum seeker from Latin America formerly detained at Berks with her child
  • Dr. Benard Dreyer, President-Elect, American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Dr. Alan Shapiro, Senior Medical Director for Community Pediatric Programs at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore

Below is a transcript of the media telebriefing:

Olga Byrne

Thank you so much, my name is Olga Byrne and I’m a senior associate with Human Rights First in New York. I’d like to thank you all for joining us. Human Rights First is very pleased to be hosting this conference call today. I’d like to start by thanking the three members of our panel, who are here to discuss family detention, and in particular Berks Family Detention Center in Pennsylvania at this very pivotal moment.

So we have with us here today a mother from Latin America who was recently detained at Berks with her 6 year old daughter. For her safety, we are going be using a pseudonym, so we would like for everyone to refer to her as Daniela on this call.

Next we’ll have Dr. Benard Dreyer, the president elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and following Dr. Dreyer, Dr. Alan Shapiro who is the assistant clinical professor of pediatrics Montefiore Medical Center and Einstein College of Medicine and the senior medical director for community pediatric programs of the children’s hospital at Montefiore and the Children’s Health Fund

I’m going to start by giving a very brief backgrounds of family detention and where we are today and finally our recent visit to the Berks Detention Center and the report that we issued on that and I’m sure many of you know in June 2014, thousands of women and children crossed the U.S. – Mexico border seeking safety and the opportunity to have their claims for asylum safely assessed.

Instead, what they found is they were promptly put into detention centers as part of The Obama Administration’s effort to send a message to others who might wish to seek safety in America. The message they wanted to send was “Don’t Come Here”

One year later in June 2015, Secretary of Homeland Security Jay Johnson, announced a series of reform and these included measures to reduce the length of time families were held in immigration detention. In late July, just about a month ago, the U.S. district court of the central district of California issued an order finding that the government family detention policies violated the Flores Settlement Agreement.

That settlement agreement articulates the legal standards for the detention relief and treatment of children by the immigration authority, the administration response which it filed just a couple weeks ago made clear that the United States still wishes to use immigration detention to or deter families from seeking protection in the united states, that response as well as the plaintiffs response that is now under consideration from the judge and a final ruling in the case is expected very soon over the last few months including just last week Human Rights First staff visited the Berks Family Detention Center, which is formally known as the Berks County Residential Center, in Leesport, Pennsylvania and we met with asylum seekers including parents and children who have been held at the facility.

Some of the families we met were helped for many months and even a year and some of them have been there for a period of about 2-6 weeks. We saw that children and families at Berks, expressed a lot of anxiety over their loss of liberty. They said they didn’t even feel like they should be incarcerated or in prison since they haven’t committed any crime or any acts of delinquency. We also saw that despite that the June Homeland Security Reform, families encountered significant delays in their immigration proceedings.

They lacked access to legal counsel and they continued to faced obstacles and delays to release due to bonds that were set way to high far too high for them to afford. During our visit to Berks last week, we were accompanied by Dr. Dreyer and Dr. Shapiro who are on call as well as some others and we met with families who have been at Berks for periods ranging from 2-6 weeks, we saw that that notwithstanding that time period which is less than the time that families were held in detention before the DHS reform, it was clear that children and their parents are still suffering from symptoms of mental health problems.

We issued a report yesterday on family detention at berks. After speaking with families there as well as in light of the work that Human Rights First has done. We recommend that the administration end its policy of family dentition in line with the court order and discontinue sending families to Berks or any other facilities to (inaudible) that certain people might need official and recommend the government might use community based programs, which have been proven successful and are much less costly than detention.

At this moment, I’d like to pass the line to Daniela, I’d like to mention that we will have an interpreter. So after a sentence or two, Daniela will pause and we’ll have an interpretation.


Translation: I came to the United States and asked for detention, I was detained for 20 days and after with border patrol and then I was reunited with my daughter at Berks.

I never imagined that in the United States where they have these detention centers where they incarcerate children and their mothers.

My daughter had an intestinal infection from the food they gave her at Berks.

She had a very very high fever and they only gave her water.

She started to have compulsions because of the fever.

When they started, they sent us to a nearby hospital.

When we went to the hospital, they prescribed her a prescription for the fever.

And another medication for the infection.

When I got back to Berks, they took away their prescriptions and said these prescriptions were not necessary.

My daughter didn’t eat and just cried all the time while we were there.

It caused a lot of stress to be in this place.

It’s so frustrating to not be able to explain to your daughter why you can’t leave.

She started to eat but the food wasn’t healthy.

Hamburgers and hot dogs four to five times a week isn’t healthy for a child.

My six year old child lost 18 pounds.

I took her to the psychologists and my daughter drew houses with no doors and bars on the windows.

I understand when a child draws a house with the house and the bars on the windows that they feel very insecure.

I asked the psychologists and the psychologist told me that my child was okay and this was normal behavior.

Everything was out of my hands I couldn’t take care of my child.

I couldn’t give her the medicine.

I couldn’t give her favorite foods so she wouldn’t lose weight.

My daughter only wanted to sleep all the time.

For me, this is a symptom of depression.

The kids are innocent.

The kids are innocent of the entire asylum process of the U.S.

When I came to this country I never imagined that there would be detention when I cam requesting help.

There isn’t detention like this in under developed countries.

The psychological problems are caused by being in prison for so long.

And the sadness of not being able to do anything is translated to our children.

This is a situation that’s hidden from the world.

Especially in a country that’s so powerful and full of opportunity.


Thank you so much for speaking about your experience and your extremely thoughtful comments and reflection on your experience on dentition at Berks.

At this moment we will pass the line to Dr. Benard Dreyer, the president elect of the American academy of pediatrics.

Dr. Benard Dreyer

Thank you very much, I’m really glad to be here, talking to you today about this very significant problem.

Daniela described exactly the condition of the family that we met with and all the other families that we met with at Berks and I think she said it pointedly and clearly what the issues are. As you know man of these children and mothers are traumatized in their own country or by the trip, I think that Doctor Shapiro should focus on that more and when they’re placed in the detention even for a few days, although they are never day for a few days yet, the physical and mental health problems often persist long after the detention is over as you heard from Daniela and I think, exactly what Daniela told you, we heard this from. Many other mothers and older children. Many older children tell you how said it was. Many mothers and children were crying when we talked to them and one of the older children, older meaning 10 or 11, said how sad she was and she didn’t understand why she had to be in prison when she was not a criminal and she didn’t do anything wrong.

As you also heard from Daniela, the mothers are also sort of out of loop control of their own children, meaning they can’t provide things that they ordinarily provide which means this really disturbs the mother-child relationship and many of the children act out because they don’t understand why their parents who usually protect them are not protecting them in this situation and again you heard that clearly.

We know that many of the parents relate the symptoms of the children as, depression, anxiety and increased aggression toward their parents. Many of the children have sleeping and eating problems, Daniela described weight loss and we heard this from other families as well.

A detention is associated with poor health outcomes, higher degrees of psychological stress and abnormality. We heard from several mothers and children, and we know that for children, early exposure to early adverse experiences, often refers to as toxic stress has long term consequences and this can have measurable effects on their development, on their educational achievement and into adulthood on economic activity and health status in life. So this is really, sort of an unacceptable situation, I think we can all agree that children should not be in prison. I think in essence that is what’s happening here, even though Brooks is actually one of them somewhat nicer of detention centers. It still feels like prison as you heard from Daniela.

Us Pediatricians, we believe that children are our most enduring and vulnerable legacy and all children deserve optimal health and the highest quality health care. You heard the problems with health care from Daniela. We really question, whether the existing form of detention facilities, of providing general recognized standards of medical and mental health care to children. And my visit to Berks, and meeting with families there, really confirmed these fears.

As an organization of pediatricians, the NAP remains very concerned over the continued detainment of children and others in the existing facility, puts them at great risk for physical and mental health problems and unnecessarily exposes children and mothers to additional psychological trauma over the trauma they’ve already been exposed to in their home country and on the trip here.

We as an organization has expressed these concerns to Johnson, Security to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and we are actively trying to advocate for change in the wake of these families have been treated. I’d be glad to answer questions later about this but, this just sort of summarizes the issues that you heard so very clearly and pointedly.


Thank you very much Dr. Dreyer, for your comments. As Dr. Dreyer said, we will have questions for the end, and we have one more panelist, Dr. Shapiro. I’ll turn it over to you Alan, now.

Dr. Alan Shapiro

Hi, hi everybody thanks for inviting me today, just to give you a little bit of my background, I was a co-founder of a program called Terrafirma in which Terrafirma helped provide care and justice for immigrant children. This is a program that has been taking care of unaccompanied immigrant children. Founded in 2013 and certainly in responses to the flood of children coming across the border. We have medical, legal and mental health services, all co-located and integrated in our community health center that’s affiliated with the children’s health fund.

The goal of our program is to help normalized and cultivate children and provide a medical home and to help them to get legal relief and we’ve really seen the incredible effects of violence and the lack of protection of children and families of their home countries primarily from the northern triangle of Central America including Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. However we have seen children from other parts of the world and other parts of Latin America as well. The issue of family detention is very concerning to me and to all of us on the line today. Really in question is this concept of resettlement is being interrupted and that children who are crossing the border should not be out in detention and that is what the Flores Settlement Agreement has stated and we feel it’s really disturbing the federal government is interrupting the settlement to exclude children coming with their parents and predominantly children coming with their mothers. I think we really have to think about who these children and moms are. Who these families are. They are by and large, by and far escaping violence in their community and escaping where there is no protection for them.

Compounded them of course as you know by abject poverty. However it really is the violence that is sparking this large in these families and lack of protection for these families, so there is really nowhere for them to turn. In many ways war is over the world for the last century in more, they are doing what people do to save their lives and save children lives. We as a country have to respond humanely.

When families come they never expect to come to a country like ours, a country that they dream of for opportunities and safety and be placed in detention without really a good sense of what’s going to happen to them. That’s really what concerned us when we went to the site and visited Berks, we went to Berks, the families by and far told us. Really every family that was in a group that we spoke to with 16 adults and 2 children that they really had no idea what was happening to them. Only two had contact with a lawyer, one had a lawyer but had no contact with her lawyer and the rest had no contact at all is really had no idea what was going to happen to them.

This really led to a sense of desperation, a sense of hopelessness and a sense of helplessness. Really key symptoms of depression. As with said by Dr. Dreyer and by Daniela, the really overwhelming sense that we got from the families that they were really suffering from an unusual amount of distress and feeling that not only for them as a adults that they were completely powerless but really did not know how to answer to their children’s cry for help and the fact that the children looked toward their parents for safety and the parents were powerless and helpless to helping them.

Very pointedly, one mother and child, a 12 year old was brought to me because the mom was the very concerned the child stopped talking to her. In talking to the child, privately, she said she was very angry because she didn’t understand why they were in detention and the mother wasn’t able to do anything. After explaining more clearly what was happening was that A) This was not going to last forever and B) it was not in the moms hands and that she and the mom really had to be partners and be strong and being in the detention center and waiting to hear about their case, that was able to I think comfort the child. What was disturbing to me really disturbing to me as a pediatrician working with immigrant families was the lack of communication that the medical and primarily the mental health staff had with the families.

We met with the medical and mental health staff. The medical staff, for the most part we heard from the families that the medical care they were receiving was adequate and respectful. It sounds like Daniela’s story —obviously we didn’t hear of all the cases, this is just one point in time— so obviously Daniela’s case was an instance where there was a lot of concerns about the care she was receiving. However, what was really disturbing to me was that the mental health staff really didn’t seem to adequately screen the parents in particularly the children for depression, for stress, for post-traumatic stress disorder, for just adjustment disorders and for anxiety and when we asked what specific screening tools they used they just said “observation” which is really not adequate, especially for children and their families who have been traumatized in their own country and traumatized by a 3,000 mile journey to the U.S. border.

So the lack of formal screening was very concerning to me and obviously not picking up on issues that became very clear to us in the group we ran. Furthermore, when I asked specifically whether group[s were run for families, whether parents or children were all together, we were told specifically that even though groups existed that no one wanted to participate. Which may be understanding except when we met with the families, our meeting automatically turned into a group counseling session and certainly my ability to speak Spanish as well as a few others in our groups who were able to speak Spanish made a big difference. We were told that there were no Spanish speaking mental health professionals in that group and that was run tele-phonetically with an interpreter and that really seems highly inadequate for a detention center made up dominantly of Spanish speaking people, and not only people, but mom’s and children.

It seems inconceivable to me that the justice department would allow this to happen, would allow an immigration dentition center for children and families to exist without adequate mental health services and without adequate bilingual staff. It was clear to us that that was sorely missing from the center and that families responded immediately with our questions and really within a few minutes were crying, talking about their own desperation which showed us A) a group was possible and that it was really needed. I think those are the main points I have, but certainly open to answer any questions you have.

I think, let me just add, sorry, that one of the points that got brought up very frequently was the high level of bonds that families had to pay to get out of detention and that sounded like a really unnecessary barrier, to really coming to the United States for safe haven, absolutely do not pose a threat to my person, these are moms for the most part who are children or moms and dads and children. So, the fact that bonds would be put at such a high level – we heard up to 5,000 dollars which was really out of the question for families to pay. Seems like really unnecessary barrier so that was also something we were very concerned about and hopefully that practice will come to an end and hopefully detaining families in dentition.

I’m sorry, lastly, that we saw such distress of families that were in the shelter system, and the detention system for relatively short period of time compared to how families were really told us that the processing time it took, according to the Department of Homeland Security, really was not an adequate answer to the response to judge the decision about how the settlement was being interpreted in other words to make this feel a little bit clearer. The Department of Homeland Security basically said now they were changing how long families were going to stay in detention just to help process them and get them into the community. Everyone we met if they had somewhere to go or a family to go to, so everyone we met had someone to go to and could go immediately to them. The mental health symptoms were occurring which obviously what was not happening even in short periods of time as Dr. Dreyer mentioned, was really was leading to serious distress and depression and I’ll stop there.


Thank you so much Alan, so this is Olga and just to sort of sum it up, I think we heard very eloquently from Daniela about how her child suffered while they were detained at Berks, with those physical health problems we lost not even, not even access to medications that was prescribed by a doctor, her feelings of depression which were clearly and visually reflected in the drawing of the house with no doors and bars and windows, we’ve e also heard from Dr. Shapiro, the apparent great need for people to have some kind of way to express themselves which was evident in our group meeting and the fact that the facility didn’t seem to provide any kind of therapy that was really accessible and useful for the families that were detained there. The lack of standard mental health screenings, and simply the fact even under the relatively short period, relativity, because families were detained for so much longer than months ago and the stress that it causes was very apparent and as Dr. Dreyer said, it’s questionable even if perhaps Homeland Security is capable of providing appropriate care that it’s holding in detention.

Finally, I’ll just add from our prospective from Human Rights First, none of this is necessary, detention is not necessary as we talk about in our report, community based reports have been filed very successfully from the Catholic groups and the Lutheran groups, people do show up to their court proceedings and community based programs are also to an extent necessary for certain families able to provide other services such as housing or social services and all of this comes at a much lower cost.

With that, we are very happy to turn it over to questions.


Published on August 20, 2015


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