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Children are being separated from parents while in border custody, independent monitor finds
Report notes children’s significant emotional distress during separation from parents

Happy looking child on a swing. The sun is shining behind their head

All children and families — including those seeking safety at the United States border — deserve to be treated with care and dignity. 

Every day, families fleeing violence, poverty, and persecution are forced to embark on profoundly hazardous journeys in order to reach our country’s borders. Once families arrive, they are subjected to dehumanizing detention conditions and now, as found by a new independent monitor’s report, parents run the risk of being separated from their children.

One year ago, Dr. Paul Wise, Stanford pediatrician and professor, was appointed by a federal court to monitor compliance with a July 2022 agreement in the Flores case regarding U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities. Dr. Wise issued monitoring reports in January and July 2023 which highlighted areas in need of “urgent remediation,” documented fundamental concerns regarding CBP’s medical systems, and concluded that the recent death of an 8-year-old child in CBP custody was “clearly preventable.”

This week, Dr. Wise filed a third monitoring report, which revealed that CBP has been regularly separating children from their parents while in custody, and has provided little to no opportunity for contact between parent and child during that time

The report states:

“Site visits found that both boys and girls were being held separately, some as young as 8 years of age. A declaration provided by the Plaintiffs reported that even younger children were held apart from their parents. Separated children included girls separated from mothers and boys separated from their fathers. None of the interviewed children had visited with their parents since they were separated, including children who had been separated for 4 days.” 

As Dr. Wise recognizes, “[t]he separation of families and the lack of interaction while in custody inflicts significant, and potentially lasting, harm to children, particularly young children.” Site visit interviews with separated children “revealed significant emotional distress related to separation, including sustained crying and disorientation, particularly due to the child’s uncertainty as to the location of the parent and when, and even if, child and parent might be reunited.”

As a baseline policy, separating children from their parents is indefensible. As noted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “highly stressful experiences, like family separation, can cause irreparable harm, disrupting a child's brain architecture and affecting his or her short- and long-term health. This type of prolonged exposure to serious stress — known as toxic stress — can carry lifelong consequences for children.” 

Over the past 26 years, National Center for Youth Law attorneys who serve as Flores counsel have witnessed the preventable and immense suffering of children in government custody. This suffering will not end until CBP stops detaining children entirely. Until then, at a bare minimum, the government must prohibit family separation, with extremely narrow exceptions only in cases where it is critical to protect the safety of the child.