ResourcesPress Release

U.S. Government Confirms Migrant Children Experienced Severe Mental Health Issues Following “Family Separation”

Report findings reflect what Physicians for Human Rights and the medical community has long-known: Family separation causes lasting and profound harm

Separation of migrant children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border has caused severe psychological harm, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a U.S. government report released today. The findings reflect what Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and medical experts have long known and communicated to the U.S. administration: family separation causes lasting and profound psychological trauma.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report is the first significant acknowledgment by the government about how the Trump administration’s punitive and inhumane immigration policies have affected the mental health of children. OIG conducted site visits at 45 facilities that care for migrant children and interviewed approximately 100 mental health clinicians who worked with children in these facilities. A related OIG report also released today found that the facilities were understaffed with qualified mental health professionals and that mental health workers were overwhelmed and ill-equipped, resulting in deficient care for children.

Medical evidence clearly shows that family separation can cause severe and long-term psychological harm to children. Separation from parents is linked with higher rates of PTSD and chronic mental health conditions like depression among children. The negative impact on the cognitive and emotional functioning of children can continue into adulthood, and contribute to lower academic achievement, attachment difficulties, and poor mental health. Extreme and repetitive stress is also correlated with increased risk of physical health conditions such as cancer, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease.

“We have known all along that the government’s elective decision to traumatize children would have profound and devastating consequences for childhood development and mental health,” said Kathryn Hampton, PHR Asylum Network program officer.

“The special bond between parent and child is imperative to healthy cognitive and mental development. Parents help buffer children from extremely stressful and dangerous situations. Without this vital resource, children are at risk of devastating short- and long-term mental and physical harm.

“Family unity is recognized as a civil right under the U.S. constitution and under international law. Children should only be separated from parents in cases where it is in the child’s best interest to keep them safe. Under no circumstances should it be U.S. policy to traumatize children and their families.

“Physicians for Human Rights research has shown that many of the children arriving at the border have already endured unthinkable persecution and violence in their countries of origin and while in transit to the United States. Cruel policies like family separation only compound trauma for an already traumatized group.

“Disturbingly, family separations are still taking place, despite a nationwide injunction prohibiting the practice. The government must immediately stop separating children from their parents, and from other adults who are responsible by law and custom to care for them. The government must also reunify families and provide reparations for the harms caused. Given the stark findings of this OIG report, the provision of mental health services must be an integral part of the government’s response to right this wrong.

“No child belongs in immigration detention, even if they are detained alongside their parents. This administration should immediately adopt community-based alternatives to detention, which are humane and effective, and which lessen trauma experienced by children and families.”

In June 2018, PHR issued a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice which outlined the “profoundly harmful” impacts of family separation. More than 20,000 experts across the health and child development fields signed on to the letter. Since July 2018, PHR clinicians have provided forensic evaluations for 44 separated parents and children to document the trauma they suffered in their countries of origin and the compounded trauma they experienced when they were separated by the U.S. government to support their asylum applications and claims for monetary damages.

Additional Background on PHR’s Asylum Work:
As the humanitarian crisis at the U.S. southern border has become increasingly severe, PHR has sent teams of medical and mental health clinicians to interview children, families, and other asylum seekers as part of its Asylum Network’s effort to evaluate the medical and psychological conditions of asylum seekers. PHR’s findings make clear that it is time for the U.S. administration to end all policies that lead to the detention of children and separation of families.

In June, PHR released two groundbreaking reports on: 1) the medical and mental health impacts of exposure to trauma in children seeking asylum; and 2) how U.S. immigration enforcement in health facilities is harming patients across the United States. Both reports speak to the severity of the health consequences and the urgent need for policy solutions, and include detailed recommendations for the U.S. government and other parties.

PHR partnered with the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights to produce its report “There is No One Here to Protect You: Trauma Among Children Fleeing Violence in Central America,” which presents the first case series of child and adolescent asylum seekers arriving in the United States. The report documents the physical and psychological harm caused by gang and domestic violence against children in their home countries, as well as compounding trauma experienced by children in transit to the United States and in U.S. immigration detention.

PHR’s policy brief “Not in My Exam Room” documents discriminatory practices by U.S. immigration enforcement that have led to egregious health care violations, including impeding patient care and neglect of medical advice. The brief details harsh immigration enforcement actions within the militarized border zone which are violating patient rights and creating widening racial and ethnic health disparities as well as putting the health care of patients and the ethical obligations of medical professionals at risk.

PHR has repeatedly called on the U.S. administration to guarantee the basic health of individuals in its custody and to provide adequate medical treatment of children affected by trauma in regard to both physical and mental health.

PHR Resources on Asylum and the U.S. Border
  • Press Release: “Trump’s New Indefinite Family Detention Rule is Dangerous, Inhumane, and Unlawful,” August 23, 2019
  • Mobilization/Photos: “Doctor’s Orders: Close the Camps” – a protest by medical professionals in front of the White House after a PHR-organized letter to the Trump administration signed by almost 25,000 people was delivered to the Department of Homeland Security, July 16, 2019
  • Report: “There is No One Here to Protect You,” June 10, 2019
    • Press Release: “Asylum-Seeking Children from Northern Triangle Suffer Multi-Dimensional, Recurrent, Sustained Trauma,” June 10, 2019
  • Policy Brief: “Not in My Exam Room,” June 10, 2019
    • Press Release: “U.S. Immigration Enforcement Practices Violate Patient Rights and Medical Ethics,” June 10, 2019
    • Fact Sheet: “Establishing Sanctuary Hospitals: Protecting the Right to Access Health Care,” June 10, 2019

Fact Sheet: “Health Risks of Customs and Border Protection Detention,” July 2019

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.