Other Voices

Texas should not condone detention of immigrant children

Children line up in the cafeteria at a South Texas center that’s a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border.
Children line up in the cafeteria at a South Texas center that’s a temporary home for immigrant women and children detained at the border. AP

Texas is seeing another influx of unaccompanied and accompanied minors crossing our southern border.

These children and their families experience extreme trauma as they make the dangerous journey away from the violence in their home countries in Central America.

Unfortunately, once they reach the United States these refugee children are being re-traumatized by their detention at facilities in Karnes City and Dilley.

And now, in a misguided effort to appease a federal court ruling that states refugee children cannot be detained in a secure facility, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is attempting to license these facilities as “family residential centers.”

This licensing category is a step down from the standards required of child care facilities by exempting them from key provisions such as standards on maximum number of room occupants, proscription of children sharing a room with adults and of children sharing a room with members of the opposite gender.

All of these exemptions increase the risk for potential child abuse and maltreatment and are in conflict the mission of the DFPS.

There is already ample authority for the agency to investigate and inspect the facilities for instances of child abuse, neglect and exploitation in accordance with the department’s charge.

I recently toured the Karnes City center with several colleagues.

Outside of the classroom, children and their mothers were clearly being treated as incarcerated detainees rather than residents.

There were many requirements and activities most often found in prison settings, such as badge checks three times a day, passage through electronically locked doors for access to basic areas such as the library, limited and monitored access to telephones and email — all of which were provided at a cost to detainees — and severe consequences for children’s misbehavior.

The culture of the facility was one of control and detention rather than residential housing. The staff is employed by private prison corporations, and it is unlikely they have training in child development, child advocacy or behavior management techniques.

In addition, there were several noted discrepancies between the educational, medical and mental health services as represented by staff and the reality of available services as reported by detained mothers with whom we spoke.

Universal nonverbal signs of depression and anxiety were evident among the detainees: heads bowed, crying and hand wringing.

This is especially worrisome due to the frequency and intensity of trauma faced during the journeys of these refugee families.

All mothers interviewed reported their children experiencing behavioral changes and typical symptoms of acute stress and trauma, including clinging, startling, irritability and disrupted eating and sleeping patterns.

Many mothers showed symptoms of depression such as sadness, feelings of hopelessness, trouble sleeping and suicidal ideation.

It was by no means clear that the facility was prepared or willing to address or recognize acute stress symptoms.

A large body of scientific literature addresses the long-term consequences of stress on health. The children will likely have a significantly higher incidence of developmental, behavioral, emotional and medical conditions into adulthood.

Licensing of the facility most likely would not alleviate reported symptoms, as the culture of detention is inherently traumatic, especially for children.

The intrinsic nature of these facilities as detention centers is not conducive to the emotional and developmental needs of these highly traumatized children.

Licensing them with lessened standards will only convey de facto state approval of the conditions within the centers, endorsing the concept that small children who have committed no crime can be detained in what are essentially correctional facilities under prison-like conditions.

Joyce Elizabeth Mauk M.D. is CEO and medical director at the Child Study Center in Fort Worth.