US Treatment of Children at Southern Border Is 'Torture': Pediatricians

By Carolyn Crist

January 04, 2021

(Reuters Health) - The punitive policies against children at the U.S.-Mexico border, such as separating minors from their families, has risen to a level to be classified as torture, according to a group of pediatricians and community health specialists.

Child health and mental health groups should speak up and create local, national and international responses to prevent the ongoing treatment of migrant children at the border, they urge in a paper in Pediatrics.

"The callous abuse of children at the U.S. southern border by U.S. authorities as American policy continues unabated," said senior author Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen of the University of Florida College of Medicine at Jacksonville.

"By all global standards, this abuse rises to the level of torture and is a fundamental violation of their human rights," he told Reuters Health by email. "The U.S. public must know and understand the gravity of the cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatment of children that is being perpetrated by their government -- our government."

Goldhagen and colleagues across the country wrote about the treatment at the border and what health care professionals can do to advocate for change. For decades, the Geneva Convention and the United Nations have prohibited torture against children and outlined the rights of migrant and refugee children to stay with their families, not face violence and have access to health care.

The treatment of children at the U.S. border, however, fulfills several criteria for torture, the authors wrote. Children face severe physical and psychological pain and suffering by being separated from their families, detained in unsanitary conditions in holding cells with no beds, and denied access to physical and mental health care, medications and vaccines. As a result, children have exhibited traumatic behavior, such as crying, fear, language regression, thumb sucking and regressive toilet training.

In addition, the physical and psychological treatment happens with the consent of federal, state and local authorities, the authors wrote, and is an intentional method meant to coerce, intimidate and punish children as a public deterrent for migration. The trauma has resulted in depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and suicide attempts, which will require years of intense treatment.

"We as a society are capable of condoning and perpetrating the torture of children," Goldhagen said. "Armed with knowledge, we are also capable of exerting political pressure to stop current and prevent future torture of children."

Several national and international groups have classified this treatment at the border as "torture" and have called for the U.S. to end policies that violate basic human rights, especially the policy of family separation. Goldhagen and colleagues urged health care professionals and advocacy groups to respond at local, national and international levels to end the harmful treatment of migrant children at the border.

At the individual and community level, pediatricians and other child and mental health professionals can be trained in forensic assessment to document the effects of severe treatment at the border, the authors wrote. They should also ask about and publicize elected officials' positions on immigration and treatment at the border. They can speak up individually and in groups about their personal experiences working with migrant children and families as well.

Nationally, medical organizations should adopt a child rights-based approach that advocates for human rights and prohibits torture at the border, the authors wrote. Internationally, groups should lead a global call to reunite children with their families and support efforts to address violations at borders across the world.

"Children are heavily influenced by their early experiences, which for many migrant children have been extremely challenging," said Sarah MacLean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. MacLean, who wasn't involved with this paper, has researched the mental health of children held at U.S. immigration detention centers.

"Most have fled violence in their home countries only to face further violence on their journeys to the United States and then be placed in dangerous conditions upon their arrival," she told Reuters Health by email. "They deserve the best care we can provide them, which starts with bringing attention to the conditions they face."

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online December 31, 2020.