Migrant children suffering from trauma-related issues like PTSD, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are routinely confined to California detention facilities akin to juvenile jails where they are often punished for any “disruptive” behavior rather than sufficiently treated for mental health issues, a new study has found.
While the Trump administration has repeatedly come under fire recently for what lawyers and advocates say are unsanitary and “inhumane” conditions at migrant detention facilities for unaccompanied minors, the advocacy agency Disability Rights California is sounding the alarm about what is perhaps the most vulnerable group within that population: children with disabilities and special needs.
According to a new report from the agency, all across California, the Office of Refugee Resettlement—the agency tasked with taking care of migrant children after they are apprehended by immigration officials—has consistently failed to provide detained immigrant children with disabilities sufficient special education services, medical exams, and mental health assessments that meet the state standard.
Worse, some children suffering from suicidal ideation and other mental health issues have learned that they will be penalized for reporting their suicidal thoughts and seeking help, according to the report. This is especially troubling, the study notes, in light of research that found “detained children have a tenfold increase in acquiring psychiatric disorders into adulthood.”
“Children with disabilities can be disproportionately affected by detention conditions as their disabilities may go unidentified or they may not receive proper treatment, leading to dire consequences in their immigration cases and lives,” Disability Rights California attorney Richard Diaz said in a statement. “We must find alternatives to detaining children in what often approximates jail-like conditions.”
The snapshot study, which interviewed 150 detained children across all nine California detention facilities, found that disabled children were overwhelmingly placed in California’s highest security facility–a detention center known as Yolo Juvenile Detention Center, which operates much like a juvenile jail.
“It is inhumane to place children with suicidal ideation and other mental health needs in the most restrictive Office of Refugee Resettlement settings,” the study warns.
The report, published Friday, is the result of an investigation that began in July of 2018, the same month the Department of Homeland Security announced they had separated some 2,654 children from their families. In total, California has allocated some 300 beds for unaccompanied kids, and since last summer, “several thousand” immigrant children have slept in them. Last summer, Disability Rights California began visiting the nine California centers to determine whether children with disabilities were receiving fair treatment.
“Many of these children arrive having experienced trauma, including symptoms of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions,” the report states. “Some children also have physical, sensory, or other disabilities.”
California detention centers break down into four types, ranked from highest security to lowest: Secure (which operates like a juvenile detention center), Staff-Secure (which has close supervision, but relatively more freedom), Shelter Care (the most common facility), and Transitional Foster care (which houses the “tender-aged children,” as well as teenage parents). According to the report, California has contracted one secure center (the Yolo Juvenile Detention Center), one staff-secure facility, three shelter care programs (overseeing six shelters), and one transitional foster care program. Eight of the nine facilities are run by private contractors.
Of these facilities, only Yolo, the secure center, provides educational services through a public school district for special needs students. In other words, to have access to an appropriate education—a constitutional right—special needs children must go to the “most restrictive” center in the state.
Beyond Yolo, there are no screenings for special education needs at any of these facilities, and disabilities are not a factor in class placement. One clinician, when asked if there were special needs children on premises, said he “was not sure.”
When immigrant children are taken into custody in California, they are placed at one of these centers based on a variety of factors, including mental health, medical concerns, sexual orientation, criminal background, and escape risk. Placement can also change, depending on a child’s behavior. If a kid exhibits behavior considered “disruptive,” they can be moved, or “stepped up,” to a more secure facility. The DRC report found that so-called “disruptive” behavior included self-harming behavior, like cutting or attempting suicide.
“In other words,” the study says, “children with suicidal ideation and related psychiatric disability needs can be placed in more restrictive settings because of their disability.”
DRC observed that a high proportion of the immigrant children in Yolo, the highest security facility, suffered from mental health issues, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. In September, 81 percent of children at the facility had been placed there for “self-injurious behavior, behavioral problems, or mental health diagnoses.”
Yolo is one of only two high-security detention centers for migrant juveniles in the country. The study repeatedly compares facility, which houses up to 24 kids, to a juvenile jail. Detainees at Yolo are placed in cell-block units and may not leave, except for a limited time in the outdoor courtyard, closed off by brick barbed wire.
Five of 11 children at Yolo interviewed by DRC also reported having been pepper-sprayed at the facility, sometimes having to wait more than 30 minutes just to be able to wash the burning spray off. A California Department of Justice investigation found nine children who had admitted to cutting themselves or attempting suicide while living at Yolo.
Conditions are barely less bleak at the lower security facility, BCFS in Fairfield, the only staff secure center in California. It houses up to 18 boys, ages 12-18, many of whom suffer from mental health issues, including autism. The center estimated in licensing documents that 80 percent of kids there will receive “on-going mental health treatment services.” The conditions at BCFS are more free than Yolo, but kids there were often sent from lower security shelters, and are at constant risk of being moved. Seven kids told DRC they had been transferred there with almost no notice–most as little as one hour–and none received any written explanation.
The less secure facilities are comparatively liberal, but maintain what the report describes as “an institutional feel,” with barred or covered windows, cement walls, cement courtyards, and architectural features that are often inaccessible to kids with physical disabilities. In interviews, one 6-year-old resident told DRC: “The food is good and my teachers are nice but the other older kids haven’t been nice and pick on me. I miss my toys and wish I had the chance to play with them.”
In their conclusions, the DRC offers six recommendations to the state, including regular oversight, specifying guidelines on issues of medical and mental health care, extending state medical requirements to immigrant children, ensuring access to appropriate schooling, and re-examining the policy of placing special needs children in maximum security centers. But at the crux of the conclusions was an implicit question of whether those children should be detained at all.
“Entities in charge of detention should rethink the detention of children with mental health needs and other disabilities,” the report reads. “Our interviews with children underscore that placing children in detention negatively affects their mental health.”