September 5, 2020

Maria, a mother of two in Florida, told Monique O. Madan of the Miami Herald that ever since her family became one of the thousands ripped apart by the Trump administration under his zero tolerance policy on immigration, triple-checking that her home’s windows and doors are secured before going to sleep has been a regular and painful routine. “I always worry that my kids will be taken in the middle of the night,” she said.

She’s now also among the families who have been accessing mental health services, following a “groundbreaking” court ruling last year ordering the administration to pay for such services due to the state-sanctioned trauma it inflicted on children and their parents. In that ruling last year, Judge John Kronstadt “referred to previous federal cases that found that governments can be held liable when with ‘deliberate indifference’ they place people in dangerous situations,” The New York Times reported at the time.

The damage this policy inflicted on families has been documented by the federal government itself. Last year, the Health and Human Services (HHS) inspector general said in a report that the traumas asylum-seeking children in particular had already experienced in their home countries were exacerbated after they were kidnapped from their parents by U.S. immigration agents and placed into children’s facilities.

“For example, some separated children expressed acute grief that caused them to cry inconsolably,” the inspector general’s report said. “Children who did not understand why they were separated from their parents suffered elevated levels of mental distress. For example, program directors and mental health clinicians reported that children who believed their parents had abandoned them were angry and confused.”

Maria, whose last name is not being used to protect her identify, recounted her trauma to Madan as if it had just happened yesterday.

“She and her 5-year-old daughter were sleeping side by side in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection jail cell days after the two had journeyed from El Salvador and illegally crossed the Texas border,” Madan writes. It was 1 in the morning. “’They woke her up and just took her—snatched her,’ Maria said of the 2018 incident when Customs agents took her daughter. ‘I never saw her again until two months later.’” She told Madan, “You just can’t erase them, the memories.”

But mental health specialists certainly try to help them get to a place where they can live their lives in more ease. Madan reports that specialists with Seneca Family of Agencies and Kristi House “use ‘culturally modified trauma-focused treatment,’ a culturally adapted intervention based on trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy developed for use with Hispanic children.” Kristi House’s Vanessa Ramirez told Madan that “we basically make sure that we incorporate culture, that we bring in cultural aspects like values, rituals, religion into therapy in order to help strengthen the family relationships.”

But they said it’s nevertheless a challenge. Some families complete their sessions using telehealth due to distance. Seneca’s Johanna Navarro-Perez told Madan “it’s not the same as being in person, but we’ve had to make it work. Technology is also a big one since many of these families don’t have access to a phone, tablet or Wi-Fi networks.” But they said it’s also challenging because they haven’t been able to contact all families eligible for services under the court order. According to the report, only about 350 families out of 2,500 have been reached.

“Many of the families are unfindable; they go off the grid and become ghosts,” Navarro-Perez continued to Madan. “Some of their last known addresses were actually detention centers.” And families certainly aren’t to blame for possibly being mistrusting of an incredibly personal service being paid for by the same government that ripped them apart in the first place.

A number of tallies have found that the Trump administration separated 5,500 children from their families since 2017, more than 1,500 of those children before any official policy was implemented in early 2018. But while a federal judge ordered a stop to the policy in June of that year, U.S. immigration officials exploited a loophole in his ruling to separate even more children, sometimes based on outright lies, including falsely accusing parents fleeing gang violence of being gang members themselves.

Republished with permission from Daily Kos.

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