Inside a Shelter Holding Detained Migrant Kids

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November 12, 2019
by
Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

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 pbs.org/frontline or on the PBS Video App.

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