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Toddlers separated from parents ‘eerily quiet’ or inconsolable at one migrant shelter

For days, the public has seen images of shelters for the more than 2,300 migrant children who have been separated from their parents by the Trump administration. What do we know about the facilities and the conditions where toddlers and infants are being held? John Yang talks with Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press and Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let’s return to the separation of immigration families at the U.S. southern border and the impact this is having on the children.

    The president has changed course to say that he will keep detained families together.

    But, as John Yang tells us, there are many concerns about the shelters being used now and what’s happening to more than 2,300 children who have been separated.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, not many details were known about where and under what conditions the youngest children forcibly separated from their parents at the border are being held until the Associated Press reported the locations of three of them.

    To talk about what we do know about them and the psychological impact their detention can have, we are joined by Martha Mendoza, an Associated Press national writer who helped break the story, and Dr. Colleen Kraft, a practicing pediatrician who is the current president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She has visited a shelter where some toddlers are being detained.

    Martha, let me begin with you.

    What do we know about these shelters, where they are, who is running them?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Sure.

    We know of three in Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley area, and a fourth one that’s planned for in Houston. And they are run by nonprofits that run other children’s shelters.

    Until March, they had been run by a group called International Education Service for about 30 years. These were shelters for the youngest children. But, in March, the government ended that contract. And so now two other nonprofits are running them.

  • John Yang:

    And these are being run, as you say, under contract of the government?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    That’s right.

    So, the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement will contract with agencies to staff basically 24-hour day care centers and take care of these kids.

  • John Yang:

    So these are centers designed for children?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Well, actually because, until about a month ago, the children who — were staying with their parents when they were very young, so these places had to be reconfigured to make them appropriate for such little children.

  • John Yang:

    Talk about that, for little children. I know that there is some discretion on the part of the officers at the border about separating children who are — I think the term is nonverbal, who aren’t speaking yet. How young is too young to be taking these children away, from what your reporting has learned?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Well, the federal government has what they call tender age, which is an interesting term. And some agencies say if you’re under 12, you’re tender age. Some agencies say, if you’re under 5, you’re of tender age.

    I have not heard a minimum age at which they will say this kid needs to stay with their parent. Kids who don’t go into these group shelters are going to foster care.

    And, today, I spoke with the largest provider of that refugee foster care, Bethany Christian. Their youngest is 8 months old.

  • John Yang:

    And what can you tell us about that foster care?

  • Martha Mendoza:

    So, they have 99 beds in Michigan and Maryland. And they assign kids to families who have some training and foster parent these refugee kids, very young. And what they told me is that the kids are distraught.

    And that’s also what we hear is happening inside these shelters. These kids are very, very frightened. They fall asleep crying, and then they wake up crying.

  • John Yang:

    That’s a good point to bring in Dr. Kraft.

    You visited one of these shelters along the Texas border, the Mexican border with Texas. Tell us what you saw.

  • Dr. Colleen Kraft:

    So, I visited the shelter in April of 2018. And the first room we visited was the toddler room.

    And we walked in, and the shelter is equipped with toys and books and cribs and blankets and has a homey feel to it. But the children were really remarkable when we walked in there. When you normally walk into a room with toddlers, they are loud and rambunctious and playing and moving around.

    And these children were eerily quiet, except for one little child, who was crying and sobbing and inconsolable in the middle of the room. Next to her was one of the shelter workers who was trying to give her a toy or trying to give her a book, and this child wasn’t responding.

    The staff wasn’t allowed to pick them up or touch them or console them. And, as an observer and a pediatrician, I felt totally helpless, because I know that child needed her mother, and I knew that all of those children need their mothers.

    When you have toddlers who are not interacting with other toddlers and just quiet and looking at you, that is just as abnormal as that child who is crying and wailing.

  • John Yang:

    And the president, of course, has signed an order this afternoon ending this practice. There are going to be — the families are going to be reunited. Does that end the problem? Or has this — or has damage been done?

  • Dr. Colleen Kraft:

    So, when you separate parents and children, these children have increased amounts of distress hormones, the fight-or-flight hormones in their system, and that is already disrupting their development in terms of social-emotional bonding, speech, language, and gross motor.

    And they have been traumatized. And so reuniting them with the parents is the first right thing to do. The question is the implementation. When does that happen? How does that happen? Does this family unit stay in a place that’s comforting or in a place that retraumatizes these children?

    So there’s a lot of questions in terms of the implementation of the reunification.

  • John Yang:

    And how far in the future are we likely to or could we see effects in these children, the effects of their detention?

  • Dr. Colleen Kraft:

    The effects of trauma and separation from parents is something that you could see lifelong problems with.

    The effect is much more highly manifested with the very young children and for children who have been separated for long periods of time, but can be problematic for any child. And we will have to look at the lens of, how do we feel the trauma that’s already been inflicted and not have any more trauma be inflicted on these children and families?

  • John Yang:

    And are they likely to need care and treatment for this trauma in the future?

  • Dr. Colleen Kraft:

    Very likely, we’re going to need to see some trauma-focused treatment for these family units and for these very young children, so that they’re able to bond again with parents, so that they’re able to speak and communicate and learn and develop.

  • John Yang:

    The administration officials keep saying that these children are being cared for the best quality possible, but you seem to be saying that it doesn’t matter, that the fact that they’re separated from their parents is the main issue.

  • Dr. Colleen Kraft:

    The foundational relationship between a parent and child is what sets the stage for that child’s brain development, for their learning, for their child health, for their adult health.

    And you could have the nicest facility with the nicest equipment and toys and games, but if you don’t have that parent, if you don’t have that caring adult that can buffer the stress that these kids feel, then you’re taking away the basic science of what we know helps pediatrics.

  • John Yang:

    Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press, thanks so much.

  • Martha Mendoza:

    Thank you.

  • Dr. Colleen Kraft:

    Thank you.

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