Trauma and Family Separation at the Border

September 19, 2018

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those  
            who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt  

Jan Williamson is a therapist at ChildSavers. She has experience working in the field with children during refugee emergencies. Here she is pictured with a client and therapy dog, Sasha.

I was recently asked to join a team* of mental health experts for a site visit to the Casa Padre Detention center. Located in Brownsville, Texas, this is the largest facility for refugee and migrant children being held in the United States. I was asked to assess children for traumatic impact caused by the forced separations and detention of children and adolescents ages ten to 17.  I was invited based on previous work I’ve done in the field of refugee emergencies and particularly with unaccompanied children in large scale emergencies.

While disagreements abound on current US immigration policy and what can be done about this complex problem, humane treatment of children caught in these circumstances is something we should all agree on.

I am not writing to challenge people’s views on immigration laws, but to share my thoughts on caring for who find themselves in difficult and traumatic circumstances.

What was evident to me during my time in Texas was the reality of what can happen to children without the care of parents and protective family members. It also underscored the need to provide trauma-informed and appropriate care to all children regardless of their legal status. ChildSavers believes that all children, without exception, deserve to feel safe and be in nurturing and supportive environments.

What Does a Children’s Detention Center Look Like?

The Casa Padre Detention facility was built inside a former Super Walmart store. It houses between 1,300 to 1,400 boys between the ages of ten and seventeen. The conditions are physically like a large-scale institution with rows of doorless small “rooms” sleeping four to five boys each. Lights remain on 24/7. No privacy exists. If a child needs to use the bathroom, he must wait until a staff person locates eight other children to go at the same time. Meals are provided to 300 children at a time in a cafeteria-like setting. While basic, physical needs are met, the conditions and atmosphere are those of a prison. Children are inside the windowless facility 22 hours out of 24. There were limited recreational activities but sadly, no toys are allowed. No child was permitted to have a toy in their possession. When children had nightmares or other nighttime fears, staff were not allowed to comfort them. Staff were not allowed to hug or enter children’s rooms at any time. Children as young as ten were left to manage their fears without the support of a nurturing adult.

To maintain order, children were threatened with deportation for any infraction. Infractions included becoming anxious, fearful, or emotionally upset. With little to no legal representation, the boys I spoke with did not know where they were or what legal rights they had. Many children spoke only indigenous languages with no English or Spanish, adding to their isolation and distress.

How Separation Impacts the Developmental Needs of Children?

During children’s youngest years, critical developments occur. This is the time for developing their understanding of who they are and who they will become. It is an intense and at times confusing period of growth through learning, creativity, and accomplishment of multiple tasks. This burst of creative activity is typically aided by different toys, mediums of expression, and simply being able to play outdoors and be in nature. This need for activity helps build feelings of competency and strong ego development. The acceptance and reassurance of parents is critical as tweens expand their role in the larger community. Strong parental support is needed to develop the self-confidence to make healthy choices in life.

For older teens a critical growth period for personal identity and development begins when they transition from dependence and childhood to independence and adulthood. When family separation occurs prematurely through a traumatic event, it can have a crippling effect on a teen’s emotional and social growth. When placed in a prison-like institution for an extended period, important lessons concerning peers and functioning socially are also disrupted. Parent support is crucial during this period as teens are beginning to think more like adults but lack the experience, judgment, and emotional maturity needed to function safely and well on their own.

Navigating these difficult and developmentally critical stages of life requires the support and guidance of a family. Separation from family creates profound trauma for children and adolescents. Taken from family, placed in detention, and isolated by language and culture are all factors that will disrupt the important developmental work going on at this age. The results are described in a statement from Collen Kraft, MD, MBA, FAAP, President of the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians – protecting and promoting children’s health. In fact, 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. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can carry lifelong consequences for children. (May 8, 2018)

What is being done to Assist Separated Children?

The one reassuring aspect of my experience was the hundreds of dedicated volunteers: immigration lawyers, interpreters, social workers and other mental health professionals. These volunteers donate their expertise and time to help detained children return to family care. Just as ChildSavers’ mission is dedicated to guiding our community’s children through critical life moments, I am reassured to think that despite this heartbreaking and disturbing situation within our borders, there are those who continue to work towards providing for the children who need help in their critical time of need.

To learn more about this issue and how you can help, click here.


*The Flores Class Action Settlement was the basis for Jan and the other mental health experts’ permission to enter the Casa Padre Facility. The settlement mandates that the federal Government, among other things, must provide acceptable conditions of detention of immigrant minors, and requires their release of minors to responsible adults. In most circumstances, detained minors must be released or placed in licensed group homes within 72 hours of arrest.

The Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law (the “Center”) is the legal center that resulted in the Flores Settlement and continues to monitor its implementation. This website provides information on the legal work they are doing on behalf of unaccompanied children.

Written by Jan Williamson, LCSW, RPT-S, Clinical Supervisor at ChildSavers.