WASHINGTON (CN) – House Democrats on Thursday renewed pressure to obtain critical records on the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance family separation policy in light of a watchdog report detailing psychological trauma children experienced at facilities throughout the United States.
The Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General published a 48-page report this month describing the trauma separated migrant children faced at 45 facilities last year.
One hundred mental health clinicians who provided care recorded heartbreaking accounts: children cried inconsolably, some believed their parents abandoned them, while others believed their parent had been killed and they were next. Others, experiencing what officials described as acute grief, said they “can’t feel my heart,” according to the report.
One assessment encapsulated the situation grimly, Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat and chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said at a hearing Thursday.
“Every single separated child has been terrified. We are seen as the enemy,” she said.
In a separate report released in January, the HHS inspector general found thousands more children were separated than what the government initially reported. The separations also occurred well before then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions formally announced the zero-tolerance policy in April 2018.
Jonathan White, commander of U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, raised the alarm repeatedly in the run up to policy roll out. In emails, White shared concerns that children separated from their parents for an extended period of time would suffer severe physical and mental trauma.
White communicated with Scott Lloyd, then director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and then-acting Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Steven Wagner. An HHS counselor was also included in the emails.
Whether White’s warnings reached HHS Secretary Alex Azar remains unclear. Azar testified before Congress in March, saying he only knew of the policy when it was formally announced.
Since then, the department has submitted thousands of documents for oversight but all of them, according to Congresswoman DeGette, were nonresponsive, leading her to believe the agency is slow-walking information in order to appear cooperative.
“HHS leaders should have known [the family separation crisis] was coming and tried to stop it but since they are hiding documents, we have to ask whether they were complicit,” she said at the hearing.
In hopes of expediting its probe, DeGette offered to pare down the committee’s requests but emphasized the investigation won’t end any time soon.
Ann Maxwell, assistant inspector general at HHS, said the agency will soon release a report assessing allegations of sexual assault of migrant children in federal custody.
In July, NBC reported allegations of sexual abuse inflicted upon children at the hands of Customs and Border Protection officials
But under questioning by lawmakers Thursday, John Modlin, the agency’s acting deputy chief of law enforcement operations, had no explanation for why the agency has so far failed to publish its annual report on the effectiveness of its assault prevention strategies. The report is 11 months behind schedule.
Republicans like Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and Greg Walden of Oregon slammed Democrats at the hearing. They argued it was Democratic foot-dragging on border wall funding that was to blame for the children’s trauma. Democrats’ opposition to immediately support a $4.59 billion aid package for overcrowded facilities was also to blame, they said.
Mullin blasted the Obama administration too, falsely claiming that it was the previous White House that first established a zero-tolerance policy.
Under the Trump administration, zero tolerance meant authorities would prosecute anyone caught crossing the border illegally. Adults were detained and children, who were still in their custody, removed. Under President Barack Obama, families were an exception. Instead of separating them, migrant families would be referred to civil deportation hearings unless they had a criminal record.
Congresswoman Nanette Barragan, D-Calif., noted another key difference: no children died in CBP custody during the Obama administration. Under the Trump’s administration, seven children have died.
The effects of what some migrant children have experienced will have a long-term impact. Several clinicians who contributed to the inspector general report agreed that many will be scarred for life and are now primed for mental and physical health problems like heart disease, diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder.
When a child leaves custody, they are typically given a mental health evaluation and sent on their way. But Barragan said the government is responsible for doing more than locking children up, inflicting damage and sending them packing.
To help them, the lawmaker renewed calls for passage of H.R. 1336. Introduced in March, the bill would provide ongoing mental health services for migrant children whether they were in custody or not.
If the government is causing trauma, she argued, then it has a responsibility to provide the services needed to heal.