Protecting the Most Vulnerable: An Amicus Brief in Flores v. Lynch

In an amicus brief submitted to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today, medical and mental health professionals say that the government’s family detention facilities are incapable of meeting recognized standards of care for children. Human Rights First and Munger, Tolles & Olson filed the brief on behalf of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the National Association of Social Workers in support of litigation in Flores v. Lynch.

In a recent order in the Flores case, Judge Dolly Gee gave the government until October 23, 2015 to bring detention conditions into compliance with the requirements established by the ongoing litigation. The brief filed today supports the plaintiffs—minor children in detention—in opposing the government’s opposition to Judge Gee’s order.

The medical and mental health experts’ brief provides important context to help the court determine what is required to treat children with “special concern” for their “particular vulnerability as minors,” as required by the Flores Settlement Agreement which sets national standards for the detention, release, and treatment of children. The pediatric professionals interviewed detained mothers and children and noticed a range of symptoms—sadness, despair, fear, and stress—that reflect underlying mental health problems caused by both the trauma in their home countries and the re-traumatization that detention wrought. Many of these children fled Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, known collectively as “the Northern Triangle” one of the most violent regions of the world.

The medical professionals informed the court that even short periods of detention and family separation can harm the mental and physical health of children. Studies confirm that detention, even absent abuse or neglect, often leads to clinically significant levels of mental health disorders. Detention exacerbates existing health problems, re-traumatizes asylum-seekers fleeing traumatic experiences, and inflicts new psychological damage. Children, who are especially vulnerable to the harms of detention, frequently develop mental health problems and developmental disorders while in detention. Detention is especially harmful to minors because of the negative effect stress has on cognitive development. These stressors can disrupt the development of brain architecture and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years. In their brief, the medical professionals conclude that detention may result in long-term harm to children.

As the medical and mental health experts point out, the government must comply with its obligations to respect the unique vulnerability of children, first and foremost by limiting their time in detention and housing them in child-appropriate facilities. As amici urge the court, all immigrant children must be protected from the potentially permanent harms of detention. As currently operated, the family detention facilities are incapable of meeting the needs of children.

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Published on February 23, 2016

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