The Trump administration held a record 69,550 migrant children in U.S. government custody in fiscal 2019, up 42 percent from the previous year, and it detained the children for longer periods of time, The Associated Press and PBS Frontline reported Tuesday. The number of migrant children detained away from their parents also outpaced any other nation in the world, according to United Nations researchers. Canada, for instance, detained 155 separated children in 2018, and Britain sheltered 42 migrant children in 2017; Australia detained 2,000 children during a maritime surge in 2013.
The U.S. government has acknowledged that detaining children can lead to long-term physical and emotional trauma. “Some of these migrant children who were in government custody this year have already been deported,” AP reports. “Some have reunited with family in the U.S., where they’re trying to go to school and piece back together their lives. About 4,000 are still in government custody, some in large, impersonal shelters.”
“Early experiences are literally built into our brains and bodies,” says Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child. He warned Congress earlier this year that detaining kids away from their parents or primary caregivers rewires their brains. The American Academy of Pediatrics said in the September issue of journal Pediatrics that migrant children who are detained “face almost universal traumatic histories.” The longer the detention and the younger the detainees, the greater chance of serious trauma.
When President Trump took office, the Department of Health and Human Services was caring for about 2,700 children, most of whom were reunited with parents or relatives in about a month, AP reports. In June, HHS had more than 13,000 children in custody and they stayed in detention for about two months. On Nov. 5, a federal judge ordered the government to immediately provide mental health treatment and screening to detained migrant families, ruling that there is sufficient evidence government policy “caused severe mental trauma to parents and their children” and U.S. government officials were “aware of the risks associated with family separation when they implemented it.”