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A 39-year-old Honduran mother had her 9-year-old child taken from her when she fled to the U.S. to seek asylum. It was three weeks before she was even able to speak to him, and though they were reunited two months later, she experienced depression and post-traumatic stress. She sometimes wondered whether she’d be better off dead.
Physicians for Human Rights has a name for what she endured. They say it’s torture.
The New York-based group of medical professionals conducted psychological evaluations for 17 adults and 9 children who had been separated at the border after seeking asylum. Their new report, released Tuesday, found that nearly all of them reported symptoms consistent with trauma and psychological harm from conditions they faced before and after they reached the U.S. Some said their children disappeared when the parents were in court or at a doctor’s appointment or had their kids ripped from their arms. Others said they weren’t given clear answers when asked where their kids had gone, and that they were mocked by immigration authorities. They reported poor conditions at the detention centers where they were held, without any idea of how their kids were doing.
“What was a gut-punch for me — as I was reading one report, and another, and another — was the depth of the trauma, the depth of the cruelty of the agents; how they talked to some of the clients, how they misled them, how they lied to them and told them they would never see their children again,” said Dr. Ranit Mishori, co-author of the report and senior medical advisor for Physicians for Human Rights.
The medical evaluations, which took place between July 2018 and August 2019, were part of the migrants’ medical-legal affidavits — a document requested by an attorney to detail the psychological effects of a person’s torture or persecution. The 39-year-old woman, identified only as “Ms. EP” in her medical-legal affidavit, told a social worker in December 2018 that her mind was on “overload” when she was separated from her son, identified as JCP in legal documents. She had taken him with her so he could be safe.
“Children don’t know what to think, they’re mad at their parents. They think their mother abandoned them or didn’t do enough to stop it. They don’t understand.”
Like many parents separated from their children at the border — either through the Trump administration’s defunct zero tolerance policy or the still-ongoing practice of splitting kids from “unfit” parents — Ms. EP had little control over when she’d see her son again or his care in her absence. The phone number she was given to reach him didn’t work. She was told she’d never see her child again, and worried even once they were reunited that he’d suddenly disappear.
Medical experts have been warning since the Trump administration ramped up family separation in Spring 2018 that the policies could lead to irreparable psychological damage for children and parents, and advocates continue to press that U.S. detention centers are causing families harm.
“Ms. EP reports that she can be hyper vigilant, and often checks to make sure that her son is safe and there is no one around who might take him from her,” a clinical social worker with Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Network wrote in a medical-legal affidavit in December.
“He reports that he does not like to be away from his mother,” the same clinical social worker wrote of her Ms. EP’s son after his December 2018 evaluation. He also struggled to go to the bathroom alone and had trouble sleeping through the night, according to his separate medical-legal affidavit. It was common for separated children to show regressive behaviors like bed-wetting or loss of language, according to the report.
And while parents were apart from their kids, they were agonizing about the separation. One woman from El Salvador told clinicians that after being separated from her child “it felt as if my body was gone.” Another father said he contemplated suicide for the first time after he was separated from his son, “watching the TV coverage of all the deported children who were separated from their parents,” according to the report.
“There was a lot of guilt on many levels; everyone who left left because they thought they were doing the right thing for their child,” said Katherine Peeler, a pediatrician and member of Physicians for Human Rights’ asylum network who conducted evaluations at the Dilley facility. “They wanted to give their child a chance.”
All of the parents interviewed by the medical-advocacy group reported that they came to the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras shouldering a good deal of trauma already, only to see that agony and guilt compounded by separation from their children. Fifteen of the 17 adults interviewed had received death threats, for example; 14 reported that they were targeted by gang or cartels. Many had already taken other measures to protect their families before coming to the U.S., like going to local authorities or moving internally within their own country. After those efforts failed, according to the report, they came to the U.S, where they experienced family separation.
Physicians involved in the report recommended that the U.S. provide rehabilitative services to the parents and children, consistent with “its obligations to provide redress to victims of torture and ill-treatment.” The group also asked that the U.S. end family separation except in extreme circumstances where the parent is harming the child.
“When they’re reunited, it’s not some sort of scene from ‘Love Actually,’ where everyone runs up to each other and is hugging and smiling again,” Peeler said. “There are people who are happy. But for the most part children don’t know what to think, they’re mad at their parents. They think their mother abandoned them or didn’t do enough to stop it. They don’t understand.”
Cover image: A an 8-year-old boy is embraced by a relative after arriving to La Aurora airport in Guatemala City. He stayed in a shelter for migrant children in Houston after his mother Elsa Ortiz Enriquez was deported in June 2018 under President Donald Trump administration's zero tolerance policy. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)