As debate over the Trump administration’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy and detention of thousands of children rages, parents, family members and treating physicians, among others, are publicly sharing accounts of how these children in U.S. custody are being mistreated. These stories are tragically unsurprising: The government’s directed $1.5 billion over four years to immigrant youth shelters with histories of neglect and/or abuse. With a spotlight on the conditions of detention, legal challenges could end mistreatment and even separation altogether.
A letter from the National Center for Youth Law lists examples of how one private facility, Shiloh Treatment Center near Houston, Texas, uses psychotropic drugs never approved for pediatric or adolescent patients to control the children detained there, often on the basis of apparently deliberate misdiagnoses. One child, for example, was diagnosed psychotic, then prescribed six regular drugs and two for use “as needed.” His actual condition? Autoimmune encephalitis.
That letter, along with supporting documentation, has been submitted as part of a larger lawsuit alleging overarching mistreatment of immigrant children in U.S. custody. Reveal, in connection with the Center for Investigative Reporting, contacted a forensic psychiatrist, Mark J. Mills, to review the medical records and documentation related to the suit.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist here; it looks like they’re trying to control agitation and aggressive behavior with antipsychotic drugs,” said Mills, who practices in the Washington, D.C., area and was an expert witness for a lawsuit that in 2008 stopped the federal government from forcibly administering antipsychotic drugs to deportees.
“You don’t need to administer these kinds of drugs unless someone is plucking out their eyeball or some such. The facility should not use these drugs to control behavior. That’s not what antipsychotics should be used for. That’s like the old Soviet Union used to do.”
The drugs have serious consequences for detained children, from mental health to injuries to adult onset diabetes. And, by the way, courts already stopped the federal government from dosing detainees with anti-psychotic drugs once before.
This longer-term suit is soon to be joined by direct challenges from immigrants. In the first such case, a Guatemalan asylum seeker no longer in custody alleges that by taking her 7-year-old son, the government has violated her Fifth Amendment rights, which apply to all persons on U.S. soil. Pending a resolution, she’s fighting for a temporary restraining order that will require federal authorities to release her child.
Of course, it won’t just be individuals bringing suit. New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced his intent to file a multi-agency lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Trump-era separations:
While an ACLU case challenging the separation of families in detention filed in March predates the “zero tolerance” policy, the organization has quickly pivoted to request an injunction that will apply to all affected families until the litigation is resolved.
At a minimum, these cases will shed light on the conditions under which families are separated and children who immigrate are detained, drawing attention to the bad actors and bad faith practices of facilities like Shiloh. Ideally, one or more will succeed, paving the way to end the separation of families and treatment of minors who immigrate.