US held record number of migrant children in custody in 2019
Comayagua (Honduras): The 3-year-old girl travelled for weeks cradled in her father's arms, as he set out to seek asylum in the United States. Now she won't even look at him.
After being forcibly separated at the border by government officials, sexually abused in US foster care and deported, the once bright and beaming girl arrived back in Honduras withdrawn, anxious and angry, convinced her father abandoned her.
He fears their bond is forever broken.
"I think about this trauma staying with her too, because the trauma has remained with me and still hasn't faded," he said, days after their reunion.
This month new government data shows the little girl is one of an unprecedented 69,550 migrant children held in US government custody over the past year, enough infants, toddlers, kids and teens to overflow the typical NFL stadium.
That's more kids detained away from their parents than any other country, according to United Nations researchers.
And it's happening even though the US government has acknowledged that being held in detention can be traumatic for children, putting them at risk of long-term physical and emotional damage.
Some of these migrant children who were in government custody this year have already been deported.
Some have reunited with family in the US, where they're trying to go to school and piece back together their lives.
About 4,000 are still in government custody, some in large, impersonal shelters. And more arrive every week.
The nearly 70,000 migrant children who were held in government custody this year up 42 per cent in fiscal year 2019 from 2018 spent more time in shelters and away from their families than in prior years.
The Trump administration's series of strict immigration policies has increased the time children spend in detention, despite the government's own acknowledgment that it does them harm.
In 2013, Australia detained 2,000 children during a surge of maritime arrivals.
In Canada, immigrant children are separated from their parents only as a last resort; 155 were detained in 2018.
In the United Kingdom, 42 migrant children were put in shelters in 2017, according to officials in those countries.
"Early experiences are literally built into our brains and bodies," says Dr.
Jack Shonkoff, who directs Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.
Earlier this year, he told Congress that "decades of peer-reviewed research" shows that detaining kids away from parents or primary caregivers is bad for their health. It's a brain-wiring issue, he said.
"Stable and responsive relationships promote healthy brain architecture," Shonkoff said.
"If these relationships are disrupted, young children are hit by the double whammy of a brain that is deprived of the positive stimulation it needs, and assaulted by a stress response that disrupts its developing circuitry."
Younger children are at greater risk, because their biological systems are less developed, he said. Previous harm, and the duration of separation, are also more likely to lead to trauma.