Elizabeth Letourneau, Ph.D.

Prevention Now

Crisis on the Southern Border: We're Putting Kids in Danger

Placing children in congregate care increases the risk for child sexual abuse.

Posted Jun 22, 2018

U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

In May 2018, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, under the direction of the Trump Administration, implemented a “zero tolerance” policy that directed judges to prosecute people who enter the United States illegally and place their children in separate custody. This policy has caused extreme public backlash from almost everyone: Parents, teachers, business leaders, world leaders, Democrats and Republicans, including all former First Ladies Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Hilary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter. First Lady Melania Trump also spoke out publicly against the policy and visited the Upbringing New Hope Children Center in South Texas that is housing some of these children.

There is extensive research that demonstrates separating children from their families and holding them in “congregate care” facilities is associated with increased risk for harm including an increased risk of child sexual and physical abuse. Horrifying accounts of boys being stripped naked, handcuffed and strapped to chairs are beginning to emerge from the facilities in which immigrant children are being held.

According to research on the harms of placing children in congregate care published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “placing already traumatized children in group settings can put them at greater risk of further physical abuse, when compared with children placed in families.” Because it has proven impossible to keep children safe within congregate care facilities, there is a national movement to close youth prisons and new federal guidance that limits the use of group homes with older children in foster care eliminates this practice with children younger than 12 years old.

The long-term consequences of trauma are extensive. This trauma is caused by unplanned and unpredictable separation of children from their parents and subsequent child sexual abuse, child physical abuse and child neglect that we know will happen at increased rates to children separated from their families and even to vulnerable immigrant children who remain with their parents. These consequences include increase risk for a host of mental health problems, like depression and PTSD and physical problems, including increased risk for cardiovascular disease.  Our recent research demonstrates that child sexual abuse is costly. The national economic burden exceeds 9 billion dollars. 

President Trump appears to be reversing course by doing away with the mandatory separation of children of newly prosecuted parents, but there has been no plan from the White House or the Department of Homeland Security or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency of what to do with the children who have already been separated. Moreover, a plan that includes keeping children sequestered and imprisoned, even with their parents, for any length of time is destined to cause harm. There is simply too much data to ignore. All children require and deserve safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments. Every effort should be made to ensure that immigrant children remain with their parents in the least restrictive settings possible to facilitate their wellbeing and to protect them from the entirely preventable harm associated with congregate care facilities.

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