(CN) – The child-separation policy enacted by President Donald Trump inflicted high degrees of trauma on children already severely distressed by violence in their home countries or encountered during their journey, according to a government report released Wednesday.
The inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services found that some children thought they had been abandoned by their parents or believed they were killed and suffered more acute and prolonged mental distress than detained children who had not been separated from their parents.
“Separated children experienced heightened feelings of anxiety and loss as a result of their unexpected separation from their parents after their arrival in the United States,” the report said. “For example, some separated children expressed acute grief that caused them to cry inconsolably.”
Apart from the grief, many separated children experienced physical symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, including insomnia, chest pains and destructive behavior.
“Physical symptoms felt by separated children are manifestations of their psychological pain,” said a medical director at one detention facility. “You get a lot of ‘my chest hurts,’ even though everything is fine [medically]. Children describe symptoms, ‘Every heartbeat hurts,’ ‘I can’t feel my heart,’ of emotional pain.
One child said he thought his father was killed by border agents and that he would be next, according to the report.
“One program director noted that separated children could not distinguish facility staff from the immigration agents who separated them from their parents: ‘Every single separated kid has been terrified. We’re [seen as] the enemy,’” the report states.
The inspector general also debunked claims that the zero-tolerance policy enacted by the Trump administration was simply a continuation of an Obama-era policy, noting the number of young children spiked sharply during March 2018 when implementation began and fell off again after a federal judge ordered a temporary cessation of child separation.
The IG also recommended an increase in mental health providers in detention facilities, an increase facility capacity to separate children most gravely affected by trauma including those inclined to harm themselves or others, while urging the Office of Refugee Resettlement — the federal agency in charge of detention facilities — to do everything possible to minimize the duration of children’s time spent in custody.
“Mental health clinicians described that a child’s mental health often deteriorates as the length of their stay in ORR custody increases,” the report states, abbreviating the name of the refugee office.
The report was issued on the same day U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw allowed 11 parents previously deported without their children to reenter the United States to reunite with their children while their asylum claims are adjudicated.
The judge found that in 11 of the 18 instances at issue, parents released their asylum claims in a bid to get their children back rather than any voluntary decision to cease their pursuit.
One woman was apprehended in Presidio, Texas and immediately separated from her son. During her interview with federal agents, she recanted her previous statements about being afraid to return to her country of origin because she was told she would have to wait over a year to be reunited with her young son.
“The court cannot say B.L.S.P.’s decision to withdraw her applications was the product of a free and deliberate choice, particularly when she made her decision as a result of the continued separation from her child,” Sabraw wrote in his 21-page decision.
B.L.S.P. is the initials of one of the 18 plaintiffs, none of whose identities have been disclosed.
Seven of the 18 plaintiffs were not awarded re-entry, mostly due to an inability to prove their deportation was illegal.