LOS ANGELES (CN) – Immigrant children detained at federal facilities across the country say Trump administration policies are compromising their health and violating their due process rights.
In a 58-page complaint, a proposed class of detained immigrant and asylum-seeking children claim the Office of Refugee Resettlement blocks their access to attorneys, gives them psychotropic drugs without consent and discriminates against children with disabilities.
Lead plaintiff Lucas R., a 13-year old Guatemalan detained at Shiloh Residential Treatment Center in Texas, is waiting to be released to his sister, Madelyn R., who lives in Los Angeles.
He was placed in an Arizona facility after arriving at the border in February 2018. As his confinement dragged on, Lucas “became depressed, fearing that ORR would never release him to his family,” according to the complaint.
Without first seeking familial consent, Lucas says ORR staff at the Hacienda del Sol facility in Youngtown, Arizona gave him psychotropic drugs for his “moderate” depression.
The drugs gave him stomach aches, and he refused to take them. He says that without notice or an opportunity to appeal, ORR transferred him to Shiloh, where he received Zoloft and a “major depressive disorder” diagnosis.
Lucas claims he didn’t have access to attorneys, and that ORR dealt with his mental health needs in a way that delayed a decision on his release.
According to his sister’s statement in the complaint, Lucas was a thriving, happy child in Guatemala who liked to joke, play, and talk with people.
The proposed class claims protection under the 1997 Flores settlement, which sets standards for the detention, release and treatment of undocumented children in federal custody.
Under the Flores settlement, child detainees must be released to relatives or other custodians or placed in facilities within 20 days. Facilities housing the children must be “the least restrictive setting appropriate to the minor’s age and special needs.”
On Thursday, the Trump administration announced it is abandoning the Flores settlement and proposing new regulations that would let the government detain families until their immigration cases are decided.
But according to an American Academy of Pediatrics study cited in the complaint, “highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child’s brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health.”
The class claims that due process requires that ORR give the proposed class meaningful notice and an opportunity to respond before it places them in treatment facilities.
But ORR’s assessment process “creates an unreasonable risk that youth will be placed in overly restrictive settings against their best interests, subjected to needless restrictions on their personal liberty, and unjustly suffer the trauma and stigma of imprisonment,” according to the complaint.
Further, ORR’s practice of placing children with mental health needs in facilities “exacerbates mental health issues” to the point where children are later consigned to psychiatric hospitals, the class says.
Segregating children with perceived mental health needs is known as “stepping up” and can result in children being separated from friends or family and being moved across the country.
“ORR is not equipped to provide even minimal mental health services or supports to children it places in most shelters,” the complaint states. “In warehousing youth with disabilities in secure facilities…Defendants unlawfully discriminate against youth on the basis of disability.”
In 2018, ORR placed more than 1,100 unaccompanied children in Los Angeles.
The exact size of the proposed class is unknown, but likely includes hundreds of children.
The children seek certification of their class, declaratory judgment against defendant’s practices and injunctive relief from Flores violations.
California-based nonprofit organizations San Fernando Valley Refugee Children Center and Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment are also named plaintiffs.
Named defendants are Department of Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar and ORR director E. Scott Lloyd.
Spokespeople for the agencies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.