Inside a Shelter Holding Detained Migrant Kids

In partnership with:
November 12, 2019

Under President Donald Trump, the mass detention of migrant children has climbed to record numbers.

Tonight, a joint investigation from FRONTLINE and The Associated Press called Kids Caught in the Crackdown examines the growing network of federally-funded shelter programs — and the lasting impact on children held in U.S. government custody.

“We know from the American Academy of Pediatrics that there’s no amount of time that it’s safe for children to be detained,” Neha Desai, an attorney who helps monitor the conditions for migrant kids inside detention facilities, says in the above excerpt. “We know definitively that detention harms children; that every single day they’re there, those impacts compound.”

With unique access, the documentary illuminates what happens when a child apprehended by Customs and Border Protection is handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, known as HHS. There are now approximately 170 HHS shelter programs across the country for migrant kids — and in the above excerpt, FRONTLINE and AP go inside one in San Benito, Texas that holds babies and teenage mothers.

It’s run by a private company called Comprehensive Health Services, among whose leadership is former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — who backed the policy of forcibly separating kids from their parents at the border. The company has been paid more than $300 million by the government over the past year.

“By its very definition, when you’re for-profit, your job as a company is to make profit. So some people might say, then, isn’t there then an incentive to detain kids?” FRONTLINE correspondent Daffodil Altan asks Melissa Aguilar, CHS’ director of shelter programs.

“There is a profit. There is a price incentive, but it’s not a detention incentive,” Aguilar responds. “The question about is there incentive to detain children – absolutely not. And I think that it’s so important for everybody to understand that we’re not detaining children. We’re not separating children. We’re caring for children.”

But as the documentary recounts, HHS’ own internal investigator concluded that the mental health needs of kids in the government’s shelter system were not being met— and experts warn that the consequences of mass detention of children are dire.

“We tend to see teenagers as mini-adults. They’re not adults. They cannot regulate their own emotions,” Yenys Castillo, a psychologist who was brought in to a different detention facility, says elsewhere in the film. “They don’t think of the future as we do. They think this is going to last forever.”

“The longer they stay in these detention conditions,” she adds, “the more they deteriorate psychologically.” 

For more on the scope and consequences of mass detention of migrant children under the Trump administration, watch Kids Caught in the Crackdown. Produced and directed by FRONTLINE’s Daffodil Altan and Andrés Cediel, co-produced by Sasha Joelle Achilli, and reported by AP’s Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza, the documentary is part of a collaboration between FRONTLINE and The Associated Press that also includes jointly published stories and video.

Kids Caught in the Crackdown premieres Tuesday, Nov. 12 at 10 p.m. E.S.T/9 p.m. C.S.T. It’s the first segment in a two-part hour of FRONTLINE that also includes a report on the sexual exploitation of women and girls in Iraq. Tune in or stream on PBS (check local listings), at or on the PBS Video App.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

Interview: Joe Biden on School Shootings
Then-Vice President Joe Biden discussed school shootings and gun control in a previously unpublished interview with FRONTLINE from November 2014.
May 26, 2022
Exclusive: What Joe Biden Told FRONTLINE About School Shootings and Gun Control in 2014
In remarks this week, President Biden cited his history trying to pass “common sense gun laws” — a subject he talked about in a 2014 interview with FRONTLINE, back when he was vice president and was confronted with Sandy Hook.
May 25, 2022
Two Years After George Floyd’s Murder, Minneapolis’ Efforts to Transform Safety Remain Unfinished
City leaders say they see promise in new programs that rely on civilians for some services, but recent developments have raised fresh questions about whether the MPD can be reformed.
May 25, 2022
FRONTLINE’s “A Thousand Cuts” Wins Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award
The 2021 FRONTLINE documentary examining renowned journalist Maria Ressa's fight for press freedom in the Philippines has been honored with an RFK Award in the International TV category. 
May 24, 2022