COMAYAGUA, Honduras (AP) — The 3-year-old girl traveled for weeks cradled in her father's arms, as he set out to seek asylum in the United States. Now she won't even look at him.
After being forcibly separated at the border by government officials, sexually abused in U.S. foster care and deported, the once bright and beaming girl arrived back in Honduras withdrawn, anxious and angry, convinced her father abandoned her.
He fears their bond is forever broken.
"I think about this trauma staying with her too, because the trauma has remained with me and still hasn't faded," he said, days after their reunion.
New government data show the little girl is one of an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children held in U.S. government custody over the past year, enough infants, toddlers, children and teens to overflow a typical NFL stadium. That's more children detained away from their parents than any other country, according to United Nations researchers. And it's happening even though the U.S. government has acknowledged that being held in detention can be traumatic for children, putting them at risk of long-term physical and emotional damage.
Some of the children who were in government custody this year have already been deported. Some have been reunited with family in the United States, 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. And more arrive every week.
The nearly 70,000 children who were held in government custody this year — up by 42% in fiscal year 2019 from 2018 — spent more time in jails and shelters and away from their families than in previous years. The Trump administration's strict immigration policies have increased the time children spend in detention, despite the government's acknowledgment that it does them harm.
In 2013, Australia detained 2,000 children during a surge of maritime arrivals. In Canada, immigrant children are separated from their parents only as a last resort; 155 were detained in 2018. In the United Kingdom, 42 immigrant children were put in shelters in 2017, according to officials in those countries.
"Early experiences are literally built into our brains and bodies," said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, who directs Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child. He told Congress this year that "decades of peer-reviewed research" shows that detaining children away from parents or primary caregivers is bad for their health. It's a brain-wiring issue, he said.
"Stable and responsive relationships promote healthy brain architecture," Shonkoff said. "If these relationships are disrupted, young children are hit by the double whammy of a brain that is deprived of the positive stimulation it needs, and assaulted by a stress response that disrupts its developing circuitry."
Younger children are at greater risk, because their biological systems are less developed, he said. Previous harm, and the duration of separation, are more likely to lead to trauma.
One Honduran teen who was jailed in a large detention center for four months before reuniting with his mother said that as each day passed his fear and anxiety grew.
"There was something there that made us feel desperate. It was freedom. We wanted to be free," he said. "There was despair everywhere."
Another Honduran teen, who arrived in the United States at 16 and was jailed in a series of increasingly harsh shelters for more than a year, said he saw his peers harm themselves.