How the Trump Administration Is Further Traumatizing Child Refugees

Confidential information shared with therapists is being weaponized by ICE in deportation hearings.

Everything about the Trump administration’s treatment of asylum-seeking children is deplorable. They have been separated from their families, locked in cages, used as bait to trap undocumented immigrants, sexually abused, and tagged as dangerous gang members. For many of these young people, that comes on the heels of the kind of trauma that led them to seek asylum in the first place.

Kevin explained that after his grandmother died, the gang MS-13 took over their shack. With nowhere else to go, he stayed, even as gang members tortured rivals on the patio, slept in his bed and made him run their errands. The gang eventually put him to work selling drugs…. gang leaders ordered Kevin to kill a stranger to prove his loyalty.

That order is what led Kevin and his sister to flee Honduras in search of asylum in the United States. But since he was captured by border patrol in Texas, he has spent over 850 days in detention, being transferred from a shelter for children to what amounts to a prison for adults.

Hannah Drier documented Kevin’s case extensively for the Washington Post in order to demonstrate the fact that the reason he remains in detention and has been transferred to increasingly punitive settings is because he trusted a therapist in his first placement at the shelter, who promised that what he told her would be kept confidential.

Instead, what Kevin confided to the therapist was relayed to ICE and weaponized during the hearings to determine whether he would be granted asylum or deported back to Honduras. Here is how ICE used the story quoted above from the therapist.

Youth reports history of physical abuse, neglect, and gang affiliation in country of origin. Unaccompanied child self-disclosed selling drugs. Unaccompanied child reports being part of witnessing torturing and killing, including dismemberment of body parts.

Drier explains that children arriving either unaccompanied or separated from their parents are placed in the custody of DHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). A 1977 court-ordered settlement requires that those children see a therapist within the first 72 hours of being taken into custody and weekly thereafter, due to the trauma they likely experienced.

ORR initially began sharing information from those therapy sessions with ICE in 2017. Then in 2018, they “went a step further and entered into a formal Memorandum of Agreement with ICE to share details about children in its care.” Jallyn Sualog, current deputy director for children’s programs at ORR, explained that “ORR acts in the role of legal guardian for children in its custody, as de facto parents, with the right to see children’s records and share them as it sees fit.” All of the therapists contacted by Drier confirmed that they told the children that what they said would be kept confidential. Obviously, that was a betrayal.

At the time that Drier’s account was published, Kevin was still in detention. She ends the piece with this conversation he had with his lawyer.

“Lately, I have a lot of feelings,” [Kevin] said.

He looked down. He was on the verge of crying. He picked at the fabric of his jumpsuit. He mentioned the name of someone who worked at the detention center, a staff psychologist, and then said he’d gotten so lonely recently that he’d gone to see her.

“But did you tell her anything?” Resek asked, trying not to show the alarm he was feeling.

“No, “Kevin said. “No.”

“Did you feel like it helped?” Resek asked. “Would you want to do more of it?”

Kevin wiped at his eyes. He was no longer naive, no longer frightened, and no longer younger. He was 19 years old now and utterly alone.

“I would.”

It is critical for all of us to understand what this administration is doing to children—in our name.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.