Last week, the House Oversight and Reform Committee held the first of two hearings on the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant minors. Members of Congress who recently visited immigration detention facilities at the border and the Department of Homeland Security’s acting inspector general provided testimony that confirmed recent accounts of children being held in appalling conditions.These conditions initially came to light after attorneys visited the border patrol stations in Clint and McAllen, Texas, in mid-June and revealed that the health, safety, and well-being of children were threatened by the abysmal conditions there.
When we teach social work students how to recognize signs of possible child abuse and neglect, we acknowledge that maltreatment is sometimes well hidden and difficult to discern. But sometimes cases of child maltreatment are very clear: If a state child protective services investigator came to your home and saw you treating kids the way the United States government is currently treating detained children—depriving them of adequate food, water, clothing, medical care, dental hygiene, appropriate sleeping conditions, and leaving infants in the care of ten-year-olds—those children would be immediately removed from your home.
Yet children are currently being held in facilities that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) itself acknowledges are not suited for children. The conditions are so bad that they meet the criteria of child maltreatment under Texas law. Why are we not seeing state child welfare officials conducting child protective investigations at these facilities?
To undo the horrifying system in place for children in federal immigration custody, Americans must adopt a sense of urgency and insist on the same level of oversight and standards that binds all parents, guardians, and care facilities across the country. Immigrant children seeking safety in the U.S. should not be separated from their families nor do they belong in detention. Among the most fundamental lessons we teach our social work students is that child welfare practice should aim to strengthen families and prevent unnecessary removals of children from their homes and familiar caregivers.
There is abundant evidence that separations cause lasting trauma and no amount of detention is safe for a child. And yet immigrant and refugee children are increasingly separated from adult family members and detained for extended periods in conditions that undermine their emotional and physical health. The politics of asylum claims and family separations are indeed contentious, but there should be no debate that once the federalgovernment takes custody of a child, officials entrusted with that child’s care have the responsibility to provide adequate care and protection.
When CBP apprehends unaccompanied children, the Homeland Security Act of 2002 requires that those children are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Most longer-term shelters that are funded by ORR are state-licensed and subject to child welfare inspections. Given that CBP’s short-term holding facilities have become de facto longer-term shelters, housing children for weeks on end, all facilities where children are held should now be subject to oversight from the state agencies charged with protecting children from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.
The attorneys who visited the Texas border patrol stations had access to inspect the facilities under the 1997 Flores settlement that set standards for the detention, treatment, and release of children taken into federal immigration custody. Horrified by what they saw, these attorneys filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Flores settlement. A federal judge quickly ordered the government to allow the facilities to be inspected by public health professionals and an independent monitor to ensure that conditions are addressed promptly.
This is a positive step. But it does not come close to the urgent response that would follow a determination by state child protective services workers that a child faced substantial risk of immediate harm. One pediatrician who visited the McAllen facility compared it to “torture facilities,” yet the judge’s order allows two weeks for the government to report on efforts to improve conditions for detained children.
Meanwhile, a year ago, a federal judge determined that the Department of Homeland Security failed to vigorously investigate abuse complaints filed against federal agents. Recently, a private Facebook group where current and former Border Patrol agents joked about the deaths of migrants was exposed by ProPublica.
Every facility where children are held must be subject to ongoing inspection by state-licensed child welfare professionals with appropriate expertise and experience. And those professionals must be empowered to act swiftly when children are in danger. The solution is not for the alleged perpetrators to police themselves, as the Trump administration has advocated in proposed regulations that would create a system of internal oversight.
Last summer, public outcry waned after President Trump signed an executive order ending his administration’s policy of separating children from their parents. But the separations continued. Recent reports of the treatment of immigrant children have sparked renewed outrage. Congress passed a $4.6 billion emergency aid package for the southwestern border, but the bill did not include care standards for facilities housing children.
All Americans need to take ownership of the consequences produced by the federal government’s neglectful and abusive policies. Separation and detention are inherently and profoundly harmful to child well-being, and egregious detention conditions compound that harm. As a society, we have a collective responsibility to prevent abuse of children and create environments where children can thrive. We must advocate for children to be reunited with their families as quickly as possible, and support for children and families as they recover from the trauma we have inflicted.
The shortcomings of our system of protection for immigrant children in government custody are profound. The scars on physical and mental health will last a lifetime. Americans must demand accountability from the president, administration officials, and the border patrol and immigration officers who are turning a collective blind eye to the horrors that they are inflicting every day.
While the statute of limitations on child maltreatment and failure to protect won’t last as long as the scars on the children, they will last beyond the term of the current administration. Where the federal government is not meeting its legal and moral responsibility to provide adequate care and protection, state attorneys general and child welfare directors must use their mandated authority to take action on behalf of vulnerable children.
This article was posted in conjunction with the Scholars Strategy Network.