New Report Shows Even Short Stays in Family Detention Harm Children’s Health

Washington, D.C.—In a report released today, Human Rights First found that the Obama Administration’s continuing operation of family detention facilities negatively impacts the mental and physical health of children and their parents. The report comes days before the administration’s October 23 deadline to comply with a U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruling that sets standards for the detention and release of children in federal immigration custody.

“The Department of Homeland Security has insisted that family detention facilities are merely ‘processing centers.’ That is simply wrong,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne, co-author of today’s report. “Family detention does serious, long-lasting damage to children and their parents, and is just not necessary. Rather than ending this policy, DHS is actually sending more families into detention centers, where they are at increased risk for PTSD and depression among other conditions.”

Today’s report, “Family Detention: Still Happening, Still Damaging,” finds that, as detailed in medical and mental health research, detention—even lasting for less than two weeks rather than months—is harmful to children and families.  Leading pediatricians, physicians, and social workers have described the negative effects of immigration detention on children, which include behavioral regressions, depression, anxiety, and suicidality.

This month a Human Rights First social worker—as part of a professional legal team providing pro bono assistance to detained mothers in connection with the credible fear screenings, reasonable fear, and other legal processes—met with 30 mothers and a number of children held in detention. The mothers reported a range of symptoms associated with trauma and depression, including high levels of hypervigilance, hopelessness, fatigue, and insomnia. They also related symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Major Depressive Disorder, and Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia). Moreover, a significant number of mothers who have been detained with their children are survivors of domestic violence. Detention only exacerbates the trauma that these women have suffered.

The new report finds that though the amount of time children and parents spend in detention appears to be generally lower than what families experienced before the government began implementing reforms in June, detained families continue to suffer harmful health effects and due process obstacles related to detention.  During the last few months, Human Rights First met with families in detention, some of whom had been held for up to six weeks. The government has not released recent statistics on average time spent in detention, though it has indicated that it aims to detain families for an average of about 20 days. It appears that, while decreasing time spent in detention, DHS is simultaneously increasing the number of families it puts into expedited removal and detention rather than the regular removal process.

Today’s report comes following two important developments in the administration’s family detention policy. In June 2015, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a series of reforms, which included measures to reduce the length of time families were held in immigration detention. One month later a federal court ruled that children held in U.S. immigration detention facilities to be released without unnecessary delay to a family member in order of preference beginning with parents, including the accompanying parent who was detained with the child. The deadline for the government to be in compliance with that ruling is Friday, October 23.

Recommendations in the report are informed by Human Rights First visits to detention facilities in Dilley, Texas and Berks County, Pennsylvania, as well as interviews with legal service providers and pro bono attorneys, including those representing individuals at the Karnes, Texas facility. Human Rights First recommends that:

  • The Obama Administration should end family detention once and for all.
  • DHS should refer all families directly into removal proceedings before an immigration judge rather than invoking expedited removal.
  • DHS and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) should implement community-based alternative to detention programs and legal orientation presentations, and increase access to counsel.

“Family detention is an altogether misguided and unnecessary policy, and one that is inconsistent with the United States’ long history of protecting the persecuted,” noted Byrne. “These families are fleeing violence and persecution—this policy does nothing more than inflict further damage on children and their parents.”


Published on October 20, 2015


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