As It Happens

Pediatricians want 'unfettered access' to U.S. border detention centres after 2nd child dies

If the U.S. insists on detaining children at the border, they should at least have pediatricians on hand, says Dr. Colleen Kraft.

'These are conditions that will make a well child sick and will make a sick child sicker': Dr. Colleen Kraft

Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, died in U.S. custody at a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve. (Catarina Gomez via Associated Press)

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If the U.S. insists on detaining children at the border, they should at least have pediatricians on hand, says Dr. Colleen Kraft.

Kraft is the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is offering to send doctors to U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities after two children died in U.S. custody this month.

Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8, from Guatemala died in a New Mexico hospital on Christmas Eve after suffering a cough, vomiting and fever. Another Guatemalan child, Jakelin Caal, 7, died in detention on Dec. 8.

While those deaths are under investigation, Kraft spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about how these tragedies can be prevented in the future. Here is part of their conversation.

How is it that something like this happens?

First of all, these border facilities were built for single males and were not built for children. And, in fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has come out against having children in these facilities.

But the second piece is that the people who are trained as medical professionals there are not trained in pediatrics. And we're seeing a surge of children coming through these border processing facilities. 

Annunciation House director Ruben Garcia answers questions from the media after reading a statement from the family of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, pictured at left, who died in U.S. custody. (Rudy Gutierrez/The El Paso via Associated Press)

Should pediatricians be placed in those facilities to oversee the care of these children?

Absolutely.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and also Customs and Border Patrol and have said: We are happy to help you, but you need pediatric medical expertise in the screening and evaluation and the medical management of these children.

But we also need unfettered access to these facilities, because these facilities are cold, the lights are on 24/7, there's not adequate food and water, and there are open toilets.

These are conditions that will make a well child sick and will make a sick child sicker.

What kind of maladies are we talking about? I mean, when it comes to the conditions themselves in these facilities, how were they worsening the health of these children?

If you're a child who has to sleep in a Mylar blanket and you've got a cold place and you're not adequately warm, that is a hit on your immune system.

If you have to share utensils, you have to share a cup, you might not have adequate water, you have lights on all the time so you don't get restful sleep, you have open toilets, which are a place where you can get infections — these are all very bad things for creating child illness.

Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, on June 18. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Have pediatricians that belong to your organization been able to tour any of the facilities?

Our pediatricians have not been able to get in there any time recently. And we asked. We have requested entry to be able to look at these facilities and make recommendations.

The commissioner of Customs and Border Control, Kevin McAleenan, called me yesterday and he recognizes that this is not an optimal place for children.

We had that first conversation where we may be able to partner to improve situations here — and I really hope that that's possible.

Do you think there's some concern among your members that by offering, you know, to tour these facilities, to provide support and at least assess and screen these children, that in some way you may be endorsing the continuation of these facilities for housing these kids when really they shouldn't be in them at all?

We're on the record and over and over again have said that detention facilities are not appropriate places for children.

Children should never be in them. Children who come into our country under protective custody should be housed in community-based family centres where they can receive medical care and trauma-informed health care for themselves as well as their parents.

But you've got to start somewhere.

Claudia Maquin, mother of Jakelin Caal, cries after the 7-year-old girl died while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has said that there is now more medical screening of children at the border and that she is going to visit to observe those screenings this week.

She has also said, and I'm quoting here, "Smugglers, traffickers and their own parents put these minors at risk by embarking on the dangerous and arduous journey north." What do you think of her statement?

They don't have an option, which is why they are taking their arduous journey north.

People don't do that because they don't have anything better to do. They do this because they are fleeing violence and they're fleeing certain death.

And if we can go look at these families and these children as refugees, and not the mischaracterization of them as criminals and traffickers, we could have a better idea of what they've gone through and maybe treat them with compassion and respect.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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