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Trump administration was warned of ‘traumatic psychological injury’ from family separations, official says

A top health official told lawmakers Tuesday that the Trump administration was warned about instituting “any policy” resulting in family separations because of the effects such separations could have on the wellbeing of immigrant children.

The official’s response came after Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked every federal immigration official at Tuesday’s hearing over family separations to answer a particular question: “Did anyone on this panel say, maybe [separating families] wasn’t such a good idea?”

After a pause, Blumenthal directed his question first to Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, who said he and the Office of Refugee Resettlement raised a number of concerns in the previous year about “any policy which would result in family separation due to concerns we had about the best interest of the child as well about whether that would be operationally supportable with the bed capacity we had.”

The Democratic senator asked the commander to further explain his response in layman’s terms, asking if he told the administration that children would “suffer” as a result of its “zero tolerance” policy.

“Separation of children from their parents entails significant harm to children,” White said in response. “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” he added, shortly after.

READ MORE: How the toxic stress of family separation can harm a child

White also said that the administration’s response was that family separation was not a policy. As stated before, there is no current law that mandates the separation of migrant children from their parents at the U.S. border.

The Trump administration implemented its “zero tolerance” policy this spring. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in June to halt the separations.

In recent weeks, lawsuits filed against the separation policy have produced testimonies from lawyers and the separated families they represent, alleging that the government’s actions resulted in trauma to their children.

In one personal declaration presented earlier this month in court, one mother said her son “is not the same since we were reunited.”

“I thought that, because he is so young he would not be traumatized by this experience, but he does not separate from me. He cries when he does not see me,” Olivia Caceres said of her 1-year-old son. “That behavior is not normal. In El Salvador he would stay with his dad or my sister and not cry. Now he cries for fear of being alone,” she wrote.

Here are several other key moments from Tuesday’s hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

1. Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the Trump administration “mishandled” family separations. The senator pressed the officials over reports of sexual abuse and other violations against migrants at the government’s detention facilities. It should be noted that Grassley and the panel’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, sent a letter this week asking federal investigators to look into the alleged mistreatment and abusive practices against migrants in U.S. custody. “These allegations of abuse are extremely disturbing and must be addressed,” Grassley and Feinstein wrote in a bipartisan letter. “This is not a partisan issue as reporting suggests many have been occurring for years. Immigrant families and children kept in federal custody deserve to be treated with basic human dignity and respect and should never be subjected to these forms of abuse,” they wrote.

2. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., called for Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s resignation. In the hearing, the senator said it was under her watch that thousands of children were separated from their parents, while hundreds remain separated from their families. He called the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy “cruel.” “Someone, someone in this administration has to accept responsibility. We can have border security without bullying. We can be safe without treating toddlers like terrorists,” he added. Later in the hearing, Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California, too, called for Nielsen to resign.

3. Matthew Albence of ICE described family detention centers as “summer camp.” In response to cited reports of abuse in the government’s family detention centers, Albence said any allegation is automatically reported to a joint intake center and added that the office of inspector general has the power to investigate these allegations if it thinks there’s sufficient evidence to do so. He then said the best way to describe the centers would be to liken them to “summer camp.” He cited 24/7 food, water, and education, among other services. He also mentioned basketball courts, exercise classes, and soccer fields. “I’m very comfortable with the level of service and protection that is being provided” in these centers, Albence said.

Video by PBS NewsHour

4. Was the “zero tolerance” policy a success? Another Blumenthal moment: The senator asked if anyone in the room thought the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy had been a success. “You can just raise your hand, if you think it’s been a success,” the senator said. No one raised their hand.

5. Who defended the immigration officials? Among the senators who defended the officials during the hearing was Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas who blamed Congress for the administration’s inability to fix family separations, adding that those offering criticism also provide “no plausible or workable solution at all.”

READ MORE: There’s no timeline for reuniting hundreds of families who remain separated. What happens now?