The Health and Human Services inspector general on Wednesday released a 48-page report detailing the intense psychological toll the Trump administration’s family separation policy takes on children.
Last September, the Office of the Inspector General visited 45 of the 102 government-funded refugee resettlement facilities and interviewed the mental health clinicians, medical coordinators, and facility leadership members who regularly interacted with children held in detention. The office found the mental health needs of children who had experienced “intense trauma” were not adequately addressed, and that children who had been separated from their parents experienced “heightened feelings of anxiety and loss,” among other psychological symptoms, including post-traumatic stress.
The report notes children were often “angry and confused” after being separated from their parents. Some thought they had been abandoned or even that their parents had been killed. Many cried “inconsolably” as a result of the “acute grief” they experienced as a result of the separation. “Every single separated kid has been terrified,” said on program director. “We’re [seen as] the enemy.”
Instances of separation often occurred after children had already experienced trauma in their home countries — including “physical or sexual abuse and other forms of violence,” according to the report — or on their journey to the U.S.-Mexico border. The report found facility staff were largely unable to provide the necessary care to such children, and ultimately provided a series of recommendations focused on increasing mental health training.
Though the report released Wednesday is the most comprehensive look at yet at the psychological impact family separation can have on young children, it’s hardly the first indication we’ve seen that separated children could develop longterm mental health problems. “There’s this very real thing about trauma living in your body,” Circle of Health International CEO Sera Bonds told Rolling Stone last June. “When kids live their whole lives under stress, they come into adulthood less healthy than other people.”
She went on: “The stress hormones released when a kid is exposed to protracted or even acute trauma can affect their autoimmune development, their neurological development, and certainly their psychosocial development. Because that patterning is set when you’re young and it’s a very hard thing to change as you get older.”
Though the Trump administration terminated the “zero tolerance” policy that led to thousands of family separations in 2018, the administration is still separating children from their parents, and the conditions in which isolated children are forced to live in border detention facilities remain abysmal. This summer, lawyers representing migrant children in custody filed a temporary restraining order after dozens of children and at least two doctors reported unsafe and unhygienic conditions at Texas Customs and Border Patrol facilities. The declarations used in the complaint detailed unchanged diapers, sleeping on concrete floors, soiled clothes, malnourishment, and other horrid conditions.
In August, a federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s argument that it wasn’t obligated to provide detained migrants with amenities like soap, toothbrushes, towels, and other basic hygienic products.
Read the full report released Wednesday by the Health and Human Services inspector general below: