Policy Briefs Pulse on Policy

Protecting Children’s Rights: The Detriments of Detaining Children

Violence in the Northern Triangle region of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras) has prompted thousands of individuals, families and unaccompanied minors to seek protection and asylum in the United States – many arriving by way of the U.S./Mexican border. As of July 22, 2019, approximately 10,000 Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs) were in care of the Health and Human Services, and at least 2,648 immigrant children have been separated from their parents or caregivers, largely due to the Administration’s “zero tolerance policy” that was initiated in April 2018. A robust body of research documents the many detriments of detention and separation on children, including mental health and emotional trauma; financial and housing instability; behavioral difficulties and academic challenges; and psychological impacts. A new report from the U.S. House of Representatives declared that the Trump Administration’s child separations were more harmful, traumatic, and chaotic than previously known, not to mention the expense: detaining children is costing taxpayers 4.5 million dollars daily.

Though the U.S. is understandably struggling to respond to the increased number of persons crossing the southern border seeking protection, failure to comply with existing policies is exacerbating the risk for physical and mental health issues in UACs. Under the Flores Settlement, a 1997 court settlement that established immigration detention standards for UACs, minors should not be held by Customs and Border Patrol for more than 72 hours, and for no more than 20 days in detention centers during an emergency or influx of unaccompanied minors into the U.S. The same settlement requires that children be placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child. However, the terms of the settlement are not being enforced adequately. For example, in late June 2019, it was discovered that more than 200 migrant children were detained at a remote Border Patrol station in southwest Texas without adequate food, water and sanitation. Most children were moved to other facilities once conditions were made public, but 100 were returned to the same station shortly thereafter.

Conditions in detention centers have been notoriously poor across administrations; however, new policies and practices introduced by the current administration have led to an increase in the number of children in detention centers, family separations, and obstacles to reunite children with sponsors. The Department of Health and Human Services identified thousands of cases of alleged abuse inside detention centers across the United States between 2014 and 2018, of which 178 were allegations against detention facility staff. Many of the detention centers where children are being held are not licensed in the states where they operate, and therefore may not comply with required standards of operation. Child detainees have reported poor-quality food, lack of access to basic hygiene, extreme temperatures and harsh treatment by center employees. Recent reports from detention center monitoring have confirmed conditions unacceptable for both children and adults, and 17 adults and seven children have died while in custody since 2017.

Long detainment periods are harmful to both children and adults. Compared to accompanied minors, UACs experience higher levels of anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Poor treatment, separation from loved ones and prolonged institutionalization in detention centers can negatively impact the mental health and development of children;  the stress produced by these experiences contribute to a host of negative effects on children of all ages, from toddlers to teenagers. Children in immigration detention remain at significantly increased risk of physical, mental, emotional and relational disorders in the short and long term.

Detention and family separation are being used as deterrence mechanisms for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers, but it is clear that this method is not effective. Data demonstrates that the administration’s measures to reduce migration have failed in their efforts to deter tens of thousands of migrants coming to the United States.

Detaining children, especially in conditions that do not meet basic child welfare standards, is not only an ethical challenge, but also a fiscal one. Detention is an expensive approach which costs between $250- $750 per day per child. Over an average 48-day stay, this increases to up to $36,000 per child, resulting in millions of dollars spent detaining unaccompanied alien children each day.

A lack of capacity to respond to the influx of asylum seekers does not release the U.S. from the responsibility of adhering to established standards in the Flores Settlement or the commitment to uphold the human rights of children. All children deserve to be treated with dignity and protected from harm, no matter their legal status.

For more information or resources, access the Child Migrant Protection Toolkit

Sciarini, K., Sagastume, R., Thurman, A. (2019). Protecting Children’s Rights: The detrimental impacts of detaining children, St. Louis, MO: The Clark-Fox Policy Institute, Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis