Migrant children in U.S. detention face physical, mental harms: report

Child's hands holding onto a metal mesh fence

January 22, 2024 – Children detained for a prolonged period in family immigration detention centers in the U.S. are experiencing mental and physical harm due to inadequate and inappropriate medical care, according to a new report.

The January 11 report was conducted by the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, the Massachusetts General Hospital Asylum Clinic at the MGH Center for Global Health, and the Harvard Global Health Institute, in collaboration with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.

The report analyzed the medical records of 165 children held in an ICE family immigration detention facility at Karnes County Family Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, between June 2018 and October 2020. The investigators found that children were detained at the center for a median duration of 43 days, with 88% of them staying there for longer than 20 days, which is the maximum amount of detention time allowed. In addition, children had limited access to basic health care. There was inadequate staffing, supervision, and documentation of medical care; inappropriate screening and follow-up care for existing chronic medical conditions, malnutrition, and tuberculosis; and inappropriate mental health screening.

“Detention is never in the best interest of children,” said Vasileia Digidiki, an instructor and director of FXB’s Summer Program on Migration and Refugee Studies, in an FXB press release. “The conditions that we documented in this study evidence a lack of some fundamental protections owed to children, whatever their immigration status.”

Wrote the co-authors, “The evidence of this study supports a conclusion that detention is never in the best interest of children and child detention must end.” But as long as the detention of migrant children persists, they added, detention centers must provide care that adheres to national standards.

Other FXB co-authors of the report included Dennis Kunichoff, data coordinator and analyst; Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the practice of health and human rights at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of research at FXB; and Margaret Sullivan, an instructor and health and human rights fellow.

Read the report: Child Migrants in Family Immigration Detention in the U.S.: An Examination of Current Pediatric Care Standards and Practices

Read the FXB Center release: New Report Documents the Mental and Physical Harm Experienced by Children in Immigration Detention

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