MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 11:  Central American immigrants depart ICE custody, pending future immigration court hearings on June 11, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. Thousands of undocumented immigrants continue to cross into the U.S., despite the Trump administration's recent "zero tolerance" approach to immigration policy.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Doctor: Family separation is child abuse
01:05 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

The Trump administration says it wants to detain more families during immigration proceedings

Pediatrician warns that detention "puts these kids at risk for abnormal development"

CNN  — 

Doctors are speaking out against the Trump administration’s plans to stop separating immigrant families by instead detaining children with their parents.

That approach, top pediatricians warned Wednesday, replaces one inhumane policy with another.

“It puts these kids at risk for abnormal development,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Kraft, who earlier this month condemned the practice of separating families as “government-sanctioned child abuse,” said Wednesday that detaining kids with their parents can be just as detrimental to their health.

“Having them in detention is traumatizing and it’s not a good place for children,” she said. “Children deserve to be with their families in a community-based setting where they can heal.”

Dr. Lanre Falusi, a pediatrician in Washington, DC, echoed those concerns in a call with reporters, noting that even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and mental health risks.

Children who are detained display signs of physical and emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and behavioral problems, Falusi said.

“A detention facility is absolutely no place for a child,” she said, “even if they’re accompanied by their families.”

A ‘constant threat’

In an executive order last week, President Trump said his administration was seeking more authority to detain families together until the end of their immigration proceedings. The order instructs federal agencies – notably the Department of Defense – to prepare facilities to house the potentially thousands of families who will be detained.

Administration officials maintain that they take steps to make sure children in custody get necessary medical attention and mental health care.

Kraft and other pediatricians argue that separation and detention aren’t the only options. Officials should release families from custody and use alternative methods to make sure they show up for immigration court proceedings, Kraft told CNN.

“It can be done and should be done,” she said. “That is the healthiest option for these families and these kids.”

Children who are detained face a number of potential long-term health risks, Kraft said, such as cardiac disease, cancer and behavioral health problems.

And the risks aren’t only physical, said Luis Zayas, dean of the school of social work at the University of Texas at Austin.

“What our government is doing is layering additional traumatic stress on people who have already experienced it,” said Zayas, a social worker and developmental psychologist who has evaluated mothers and children at family detention facilities in Texas since 2014.

Even with parents around, he saw many children showing symptoms of separation anxiety. Guards and staff at detention facilities, he said, often tell kids that their parents could be deported if they don’t behave. “There was that constant threat,” he said.

Parent-child bonds are often severely disrupted by detention, according to Zayas. “The mothers and fathers are disempowered, creating an insecurity of the children about their parents’ capacities to protect them.”

And the consequences of detaining more families, he said, could be dire. “We will need as a country to heal the injuries that government policies have inflicted.”

Top pediatrician’s question: ‘Now what?’

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    Kraft said she welcomed word that officials were changing course and stopping family separations. But what’s actually happening on the ground, she says, remains unclear.

    “We have lots of questions,” she said. Chief among them, she said: “Now what?”

    Kraft visited the border again this week to try to get answers. So far, she says, they’re still in short supply. Kraft said she hasn’t been allowed to visit government detention facilities this week to see for herself what’s going on. But at a border crossing bridge, Kraft says she watched officials take a Honduran woman and her 5-year-old daughter into custody.

    “When she went back into the interrogation room, it just made me wonder, we have this executive order saying we’re not going to be separating parents and children, and you look at the anguish on the face of this woman and child,” Kraft said. “You have to wonder, what’s going to happen to them? Did this executive order mean anything at all?”

    CNN’s Tal Kopan and Faith Karimi contributed to this report.