As It Happens·Q&A

Child psychiatrist helps reunite migrant boy with his mom — but thousands of children remain in U.S. custody

Dr. Amy Cohen helped reunite one migrant child with his mother this week, but thousands more remain trapped in U.S. government-run detention facilities. 

Dr. Amy Cohen says advocating for individual children feels like 'emptying out the ocean with a teaspoon'

Juan, a six-year-old Venezuelan boy, was reunited with his mother this week after being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the non-profit Every Last One, which worked to secure his release. (Every Last One/Facebook )

Dr. Amy Cohen helped reunite one migrant child with his mother this week, but thousands more remain in U.S. government-run detention facilities. 

The U.S. has seen an increase in people seeking asylum at its Mexican border, hoping for more lenience under the new Joe Biden administration. A pandemic health order means most adults and families are being turned away, but unaccompanied minors are allowed in.

In March, about 18,890 children were apprehended at the border, an almost six-fold increase from the same month in last year, according to official U.S. data.

Many of those children are being held in cramped Customs and Border Protection facilities. Legally, they're only supposed to stay there for 72 hours before being transferred to shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But with shelters at capacity and more children arriving every day, many kids have been detained in the border facilities for weeks on end.

Cohen, a child and family psychiatrist, is the executive director of Every Last One, a non-profit organization that has been working to reunite those children with their family members in the U.S. Here is part of her conversation with As it Happens host Carol Off. 

The children that you're meeting, what are they telling you about the facilities in which they're being kept?

Children are describing this pretty much across the board as a kind of hell for them. The place is extraordinarily overcrowded. These are children who are newly taken from the border, many of them from family members, so they've been newly separated. Often they're traumatized. And they're placed in rooms that may hold 100 single bed-type mats on the floor. Sometimes they are sleeping three teenagers to a mat. So it is extraordinarily uncomfortable. We're told that the food is terrible, the conditions are really awful and many of the children are highly distressed.

What is the plan for them, if there is one?

Probably 95 per cent of those children have family in the United States prepared, anxious, willing to bring them home. Fully half of the children in these facilities have parents living in the United States ready, willing and prepared to take them home. 

And why are they not being released to their families?

Because the system that has been in effect for some time is one which really doesn't favour release as a priority. It's one that favours detention as a priority with a very slow and bureaucratic and often individualized system which parents and other family members must endure, must be put through, before they're allowed to get these children back.

Biden facing criticism over migrant children

2 years ago
Duration 2:20
A surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is overwhelming U.S. facilities, with some children being kept in tents and detention centres. President Joe Biden says he is sending in FEMA to deal with a potential crisis.

Can you tell us about what you did yesterday?

On Saturday, I received a call about a Venezuelan family whose six-year-old child had come to the United States with his stepfather, his half-brother and his grandmother, and had been separated from the family, initially placed in Customs and Border Protection facility and then moved to ORR custody. 

The mother was beside herself with worry about this child….Nobody would give her any information. 

The first communication she received was early Saturday morning when the Customs and Border Protection guard called her at four o'clock in the morning saying that this child was crying uncontrollably. They were trying to put him on a bus in order to transfer him to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and he was refusing to go. And so they were calling to ask for mother's help to get him to stop crying and to get on the bus to go to the ORR facility. So they put her on the phone, and she did indeed do that. And then she asked, "Where were you taking him? Where is he going?" And they refused to tell her.

Later in the afternoon, he arrived at the facility, and the case manager called her saying, "We're very concerned about your child. He won't stop crying. He won't talk. He won't eat. Could you please talk to him and calm him down?" So she got on the phone and she did. She talked to him and she calmed him down. And she said, "Please, you're calling me to help my child. My child is distressed because he's apart from me. Why can't you let me see him? How about if I fly down there and I go see him?" And the case manager said, "No, absolutely not. You would not be permitted to see him if you came."

And that night, she got a phone call from the foster mother in the home where the child had been placed. And the foster mother said, "Please, could you help me? Your child won't stop crying and he won't go to sleep." And the mother said to her, "Well, he won't go to sleep because he's never slept in a room by himself. For his entire life, he shared a room with his grandmother, and I'm sure he's very scared and very upset because he's been separated from the family. Why don't you lie down with him until he falls asleep, and that will probably help him." And the foster mother said to her, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't do that. I've got my own daughter to attend to. I don't have the time to do that.".

This was kind of a final straw for me. So I asked the mother if she would like me to take her down to Phoenix from California. And I told her that I would bring her to this facility and that I would not leave until she was reunited with her child. And that's what we did yesterday.

What was that reunion reunion like?

When he saw his mother, he shrieked. He screamed and started to cry, and she started to cry. And the two of them just were inseparable.

And all he wanted to know is, "Are they going to take me away again?"

And will he stay with his mother now?

Oh, yes, he will stay with his mother. 

You were able to intervene. But how many times do you think this gets played out the same way without having an advocate like you?

The vast majority of cases. We see case after case after case where we know the children would have been held far longer had we not intervened, where we know that this tragedy just would have continued. I mean, for us, it feels like emptying out the ocean with a teaspoon.

I was around during zero-tolerance. I actually went to Port Isabel [in Texas] and interviewed many parents who had had their children taken away under the Trump administration and who couldn't find their children and hadn't spoken to their children, or maybe had had one call with their children. They were some of the worst interviews I have ever done in my long career of working with trauma. And I will tell you that what I am hearing in the voices of parents now is exactly what I heard in the voices of parents then.

While I think that the intentions of the Biden administration are different, they don't deliberately condone cruelty in the way that the Trump administration did, the actual impact of the policies that they are imposing on these children and families are equally damaging. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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