The physical danger of overcrowded, underresourced detention facilities kids separated from their parents at the border are enduring is well-known, but the mental trauma these kids are suffering is, for some, even more harmful.
In a sickening but sadly unsurprising piece in The Atlantic, Dolly Lucio Sevier, a pediatrician in Brownville, Texas, describes the psychological damage to kids being held in appalling conditions at a Border Patrol warehouse — the Centralized Processing Center — in nearby McAllen.
A two-year-old boy from Honduras came along with his older brother, a teenager she hoped could speak to his medical history. They had been apart for two weeks, but rather than being excited to see his brother, Sevier says, the infant spent the entire encounter “panting heavily, hoarsely, and persistently.”
Instead of typical kid emotions, what Sevier calls “a small oscillation between worried and okay,” the kids being held in detention acted “totally fearful, but then entirely subdued.”
“I can only explain it by trauma, because that is such an unusual behavior,” she said, describing them as “broken” by their time in the facility. None resisted at all when she took back the toys she’d brought to help connect with them, despite the fact that they seemed to enjoy playing with them.
Sevier described another patient, this one three years old, as an “underweight, fearful child in no acute distress.” She said her only concern is “severe trauma being removed from primary caregiver.”
The patients Sevier saw described not being allowed to wash their hands or brush their teeth. An uncle taking care of a 15-month-old baby with a fever said he’d been feeding the child with a dirty formula bottle for three weeks.
Sevier wrote in her report that “the ability to wash their infant’s bottles is unconscionable and could be considered intentional mental and emotional abuse.”
That same infant was denied access to healthcare, despite persistent wheezing, because a guard who touched the baby’s head said he wasn’t hot.
The Border Patrol is adamant that increased migrant apprehensions mean they can’t transfer these kids to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within the three days required by law.
The whole situation is leading to what government inspectors call “dangerous overcrowding and prolonged detention of children and adults in the Rio Grande Valley.” Sevier’s account is a warning that, even if they recover physically from the squalid conditions, the kids being held will suffer from psychological trauma for years to come.