The children who have been detained in appalling conditions at the border could bear scars from the experience for life, experts say

Migrants are seen from the US Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, on May 15, 2019.

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Migrants are seen from the US Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas, on May 15, 2019.
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Reuters/Loren Elliott

  • Migrant children who were detained in the notorious Border Patrol stations in recent weeks may never forget the time they spent in US custody.
  • Lawyers and reporters have documented instances of children suffering varying degrees of hunger, disease, unsanitary conditions, and neglect in the facilities.
  • Prior research has shown damaging short-term and long-term effects on children who suffer neglect early in life – even if it’s only temporary.
  • The Trump administration has acknowledged the facilities are inadequate for children, and largely faulted the migrants for traveling to the US in the first place.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

It’s tempting to assume that the very youngest of the children detained in US Border Patrol facilities – the babies and toddlers who were deprived of diapers, formula, and their parents – will have an easy time recovering from experiences they were too young to remember.

But that’s not true, child development expert Janet Shapiro told INSIDER. Just because young children don’t retain narrative memories like adults doesn’t mean they simply forget.

“There is sort of this cultural view of children, that children don’t necessarily remember their early life experiences. We often tell ourselves that to reassure themselves, like it’s going to be okay,” Shapiro said. “No. There’s lots of ways to remember things.”

When the children grow up, they might not remember the details of what happened to them. They likely won’t remember what the facilities looked like, or the older children who took care of them, or their discomfort from their dirty clothes and inability to bathe.

But Shapiro said the children detained in facilities like the Clint Border Patrol station will never fully erase the experience from their minds.

“They have other kinds of memories. Whether it’s body sensations, or any signs of other kinds of mental health challenges, dysregulated emotions, not feeling sure or secure about who they are,” she said. “It’s a little bit like a scar. It’s not that you can’t move forward, but there’s a part of the experience that remains with you.”

Central American migrants are seen inside an enclosure where they are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, Texas on March 27, 2019.

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Central American migrants are seen inside an enclosure where they are being held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in El Paso, Texas on March 27, 2019.
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Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Weeks of reports and firsthand accounts from facilities like the Clint Border Patrol station have painted a picture of migrant children suffering varying degrees of hunger, disease, unsanitary conditions, and neglect in US custody. Though children are meant to spend fewer than 72 hours in the facilities, some have spent close to a month detained, lawyers who visited the facilities said.

Read more: What a typical day is like for a child in government custody at a Texas Border Patrol station

The number of children in the facilities has dropped in recent weeks, as has the number of migrant families crossing the US-Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security told INSIDER in a statement Tuesday that the ease in pressure will help authorities “speed the movement of unaccompanied children” out of the Border Patrol stations and into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs a vast shelter system for migrant children.

But early childhood development experts say the children who endured hardship or trauma in the Border Patrol facilities will need a lot more than that to recover from the time they spent in facilities, which officials have acknowledged as entirely inappropriate for children – and they may never forget their time in US custody.

A ‘terrifying experience’ because kids aren’t very good at comprehending how long a traumatic experience will last – to them, ‘now’ is forever

Lawyers who visited the facilities reported grim stories of flu outbreaks, lice infestations, babies and toddlers relieving themselves in their clothes, and children as young as eight being forced to care for their younger peers. Beyond that, the lawyers said many of the children had been separated from their families – often from adult relatives traveling with them, but sometimes from their parents.

One lawyer told INSIDER last month that the children he met felt anxious, uncertain, and deeply humiliated by the first days and weeks they spent in the US, locked in facilities meant for adults and deprived of food, sleep, basic hygiene, and their families.

Activists and a reporter look through the perimeter fence securing the Border Patrol station where lawyers reported that detained migrant children were held, unbathed and hungry, on June 25, 2019 in Clint, Texas.

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Activists and a reporter look through the perimeter fence securing the Border Patrol station where lawyers reported that detained migrant children were held, unbathed and hungry, on June 25, 2019 in Clint, Texas.
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Getty Images/Mario Tama

Read more: The Smithsonian is interested in collecting the heartbreaking drawings migrant children made of their time in border facilities

While even adults might struggle in such circumstances, the effects on young children can be disastrous – particularly when they don’t have an adult or parent to help them navigate the experience or manage the emotions they feel, according to Shapiro, who’s the Dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College.

Unlike adults, very young children have no frame of reference to help them understand what’s happening, or when the fear and discomfort will end.

Their reactions to such disorientation can range widely. Some children will cry inconsolably, rock back and forth, or bang their heads against walls and beds, Shapiro said. Other children will withdraw completely, refusing food and becoming silent.

“It could elicit experiences of feeling terror, of feeling abandoned, feeling very isolated and alone, without any way of understanding how long is this going to go on for and what’s going to happen next,” Shapiro said. “They aren’t really able to utilize the kinds of adult narrative or cognitive approaches to problem-solving that could place this in a context for them. So it’s a very fragmented and terrifying experience.”

The children experienced trauma at a crucial time in their brains’ development

An aerial view of US Border Patrol station facilities on June 28, 2019 in Clint, Texas.

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An aerial view of US Border Patrol station facilities on June 28, 2019 in Clint, Texas.
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Getty Images/Mario Tama

Even if children were in such conditions for only a few days or a week, they spent that time in a state of constant disorientation and fear with no relief, Shapiro said.

By the time of their release, the damage was already done.

Institutional care is already damaging for children even when they have adequate food, shelter, and hygiene. Child development research conducted on children in Romanian orphanages has shown damaging short-term and long-term effects on children who suffer neglect early in life – even if that neglect is only temporary.

Read more: Trump says if asylum seekers don’t like conditions in detention centers, ‘just tell them not to come’

Kathryn L. Humphreys, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University who studies psychology and early childhood development, told INSIDER that many people wrongly think children can survive and thrive if only their basic needs like food, shelter, sanitation, and medical care are met.

In fact, children also have urgent emotional support needs, and depriving kids of the parents, relatives, or caregivers that can provide that support is nothing less than neglect.

A drawing migrant children made depicting their time spent in US Customs and Border Protection custody, released on July 3, 2019.

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A drawing migrant children made depicting their time spent in US Customs and Border Protection custody, released on July 3, 2019.
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Courtesy American Academy of Pediatrics/Handout via REUTERS

Beyond that, the conditions in the migrant detention facilities where children were deprived of both was nothing short of “outrageous,” Humphreys said.

“The scary thing is that this is the time in their development when their brain is the most plastic, when they’re most sensitive to negative impact and most responsive to positive ones,” Humphreys said. “We have an opportunity to really make a positive impact on these kids by providing them responsible care with a committed adult – but instead, we do the opposite.”

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump and his top immigration officials characterized reports of deplorable conditions and neglectful treatment of children as exaggeration, and blamed the issue on the migrants themselves.

“The Fake News Media, in particular the Failing @nytimes, is writing phony and exaggerated accounts of the Border Detention Centers,” Trump tweeted on Sunday. “First of all, people should not be entering our Country illegally, only for us to then have to care for them.”