My Tour of the Berks Family Detention Facility: A Mental Health Perspective

In a misguided effort to stem the flow of migration along the U.S. southern border, the Obama Administration drastically increased its capacity to detain refugee families. Ever since, the administration has slowly made revisions, or “improvements,” to this mistaken practice.

One of the most significant changes: instead of spending upwards of one year in detention, families are now often held for a few weeks. But research—for example, the International Detention Coalition’s report, “Captured Childhood,” shows that even short-term detention can have devastating effects on children’s physical and mental health.

A practicing psychotherapist for over 10 years, I recently visited the Berks Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania and saw up-close the harm that detention does.

The Berks facility, which is one of three detention centers in the United States that holds families, is an institutional-type facility in rural Pennsylvania. The government has made efforts to create a child-friendly environment, as evidenced by outdoor space, recreational areas, a playground, and bulletin boards with cartoon characters. However, when you dig a bit deeper there is a wellspring of despair.

Most of the families I met had been detained for four to six weeks. Their sadness and frustration were palpable. While most stated that their overall treatment was satisfactory, many complained about the lack of Spanish-speaking staff and the general uncertainty of their situation. Several parents, who had been there for about a month, said they had not received a clear explanation of their immigration cases, including when they would have their credible-fear or reasonable-fear interviews.

This lack of awareness will most certainly impact the general mental health and wellbeing of these families. One of the most triggering experiences for a person coping with the effects of trauma is to feel a lack of control and unpredictability in their lives. This is particularly damaging for children when they witness the simultaneous impotence of their parents.

Parents also spoke at length about the toll of detention on their children, including insomnia, lack of appetite, aggression, crying, and sadness. One of the mothers eloquently explained that the children are essentially expressing their parents’ feelings through their behaviors. As the parent-child relationship is a symbiotic dyad: when one party feels something it does not happen in a vacuum. A mother’s stress, whether verbalized or not, is communicated loud and clear to a child. It was clear that detention significantly impacts the mental health of the parent and child alike. The parents expressed a lack of agency and control over the well-being and care of their children. They indicated that they acutely felt that their role as parents had been gravely compromised and their children were paying the ultimate price.

I was curious to learn which treatment modalities and assessment tools the facility uses to address the needs of the children and families, many of whom experienced trauma before arriving in the United States. When I met with the psychologist who heads the mental health services at Berks, he said that they complete a bio-psychosocial assessment for all families upon arrival and have weekly “check-ins” about the children, but do not use any sort of assessment tool for trauma. While we certainly don’t want to pathologize individuals, best practice standards and studies show the importance of conducting these assessments early on to mitigate the damaging effect trauma can have on a child’s development.

Berks has no Spanish-speaking mental health worker, and there was no indication it was looking to hire any. When we asked the psychologist about providing therapy via tele interpreter, he said it was not problematic. This conflicts with the research, which identifies a number of problems that can arise.

I left doubting that families are receiving adequate services based on established, best-practice standards. The American Academy of Pediatrics also questioned the ability of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide adequate care to children in a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

My visit to Berks was eye opening. The bottom line from a mental health perspective: families simply should not be placed in detention. There is no way to do the wrong thing the right way.


Published on September 16, 2015


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