Mental Health Experts & Rights Groups Call for Unceasing Media Coverage of Separated Migrant Children

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It’s been more than four months since a judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite all families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, but 140 children are still separated from their parents in U.S. custody. It is believed that 30 children will never be reunited. Despite this, family separation is no longer in the daily headlines. We speak with a Harvard psychologist who is trying to change this by calling on U.S. media outlets to highlight the growing number of days that migrant children have been forcibly separated from their parents. Dr. Paula J. Caplan is a clinical and research psychologist and associate at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University. She is leading a coalition of human rights groups and mental health professionals calling attention to the ongoing family separation crisis.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, it’s been more than four months since a judge ordered the Trump administration to reunite all families that were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, but 140 children are still separated from their parents in U.S. custody. It is believed that 30 children will never be reunited with their parents. Despite this, family separation is no longer in the daily headlines.

We turn now to a group of human rights groups and mental health professionals trying to change this by calling on major U.S. news media outlets to highlight the growing number of days that migrant children have been forcibly separated from their families. The coalition, led by Harvard psychologist Dr. Paula Caplan, was inspired by the late CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. During the 444-day Iran hostage crisis that ended on January 20th, 1981, Cronkite ended his broadcasts by stating how many days the 52 hostages had been held.

WALTER CRONKITE: That’s the way it is, Monday, January 19th, 1981, the 443rd day of captivity for the American hostages in Iran. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News, reporting from Washington. Good night.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Dr. Paula J. Caplan, who leads the coalition asking the media to ramp up coverage of family separation. She’s a clinical and research psychologist, associate at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University.

Dr. Caplan, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what you’re demanding in this petition.

DR. PAULA CAPLAN: What we’re demanding is that the media all over this country keep this huge problem, this ongoing trauma and emotional violence against all these children and their parents by separating them—we want to keep that in the public eye. The story of this little girl who died is tragic, but it’s sort of like the school shootings. It gets to the point where if we don’t have daily reminders of what’s going on, then people forget about it. It just goes out of their minds.

And I’m a grandmother. I have five grandchildren. And when I imagine what would it be like for any of these children suddenly to be taken away from their parents, and whether or not you can explain to them in words what’s happening, in their language, the fact is that when you’re ripped away from your parents, the world isn’t safe for you anymore. It doesn’t make sense. You don’t know what’s happening, if you’ll ever see your parents again. You don’t know why this is happening. Did you do something wrong? Did your parents do something wrong?

And the trauma that’s being inflicted on these children and their parents is lasting. Every single day that one of these children is kept apart from their families, the trauma is compounded. And it takes a long, long time to get children to be able to start trusting their own perceptions, to start believing again, if they’re reunited with their parents—which some of them never will be, apparently. It takes a long time for them to start trusting that their parents can protect them, that they did love them and that the separation had nothing to do with the absence of any wishes or any love on their parents’ part.

This is vicious. It’s a venomous thing to do to children and their parents. And, you know, if we heard that the president of another country had made this kind of order to separate children from their parents and to keep them apart, for the most political of reasons, we would say, “Well, this is some sort of dictator who has ice water in his veins, who is not thinking about the human costs.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Caplan, this whole issue also of the use of psychotropic drugs, not only on the children, but also on the unaccompanied minors who are being held in detention? There was a class-action suit filed earlier this year on the government’s use of drugs to basically modify the behavior of these children.

DR. PAULA CAPLAN: This is unconscionable. It has been shown over and over, through really solid research, that psychotropic drugs are dangerous. They always help a few people, but, overwhelmingly, more often they cause harm. When you give these psychotropic drugs to children, to babies, to teenagers, whose brains are still developing, whose bodies are still developing, the drug companies will even tell you, when they are honest, which they sometimes have been about the effects of these drugs—they will tell you that in an individual case there’s no way to predict what kinds of effects this is going to have. So this is drugging—drugging young people. For what? To control them. This is a totally unethical, immoral, unprofessional use of psychotropic drugs. And at the best of times, with other people, that sort of thing needs to be done only after everything else has been tried and only under very careful supervisions. And the fact that these people are being injected, and with—apparently, with little supervision and for no decent reason, is really unimaginably horrible. And that has to stop. And I’m so glad to hear about this lawsuit.

You know, it’s so easy. It’s like with the school shootings. You hear one, and, oh, there’s been another one. And at first you’re horrified. “Oh, my god! Another one. How many people were killed? How terrifying!” And then, after a while, it disappears from media coverage because it keeps happening. So, a dozen human rights organizations and organizations focusing on trauma and emotional and physical violence have come together with a number of, dozens of individual signatories, and we issued this press release on Human Rights Day calling for the media to do what Walter Cronkite did. That had tremendous impact. I’m young enough to—sorry, I’m old enough to remember when he was doing this. And every night you could not stop thinking about these people who were being held hostage. And we need for the media to take this very small step in keeping these concerns and these dangers to the well-being, to the rights, to the emotions and the trust of these children and their parents—we need to keep it in front of the public.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I think most people don’t even realize that there’s still 140 kids who have been not reunited with their parents—

DR. PAULA CAPLAN: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —or with family members. Ivanka Trump was recently interviewed, and she said the low point of the presidency of her father, she felt, for her, was when the children were separated from their parents. Well, they still are, as you point out, and 140 still are. I wanted to go to a Human Rights Watch video that features our previous guest, Clara Long, and dads who were deported while their children remain here.

DR. DANA SINOPOLI: What we have known for decades is that there are these three kind of phases of separation. And the first phase is this phase of protest. You know, we see these children inconsolably weeping and screaming for their parents. We have that haunting audio and visual from the border, where is this hope that if I weep, if I scream, Mom and Dad will come back to me. And so we hear this so audibly.

And then the next phase is this phase of despair. And, you know, the reports of these children not playing, not running around, not doing the things that we would expect toddlers and children to do, is this kind of withdrawn state, this kind of collapsing in on themselves.

And then the third is this phase of detachment. And this, we understand, is almost kind of this aloofness, that even just if a child appears to be doing well, that doesn’t necessarily correlate with what they’re actually experiencing inside. And so, even when reunification happens, there is so much going on in this moment, that the child is both filled with joy and anger and fear, and the parent is filled with both relief and guilt. So, in the same moment, there is so much happening for both parent and child. And the trajectory of that affects these children. So, it’s not just the moment of separation, but we know that this carries on throughout their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, actually, that was Dana Sinopoli, a psychologist who signed on to the petition, who also penned an open letter condemning the Trump administration practice of separating children from their parents at the border. We interviewed her at the height of the crisis. But now I want to turn to this video produced by Human Rights Watch with Justice in Motion about parents who were deported with their kids still there.

PABLO: [translated] We are really suffering right now. My son has already been in detention for three months. He’s a baby, he’s a little kid. He turned 8 years old in there, locked up like a criminal.

MARCELINO: [translated] She was taken at Yuma, Arizona, and I don’t know where she has been since then. We’re worried because she’s all alone. We don’t know how she’s doing, if she’s OK. Nobody knows.

CLARA LONG: When these kids are separated, they go into a system of shelters or detention centers. The conditions vary widely, but, unfortunately, we know that there have been very serious allegations of abuse and mistreatment, including sexual assault, physical abuse and the inappropriate use of psychotropic drugs.

PABLO: [translated] My son told me, “They’ve given me some pills so that I can fall asleep.” We don’t know what they’re giving him, because now he talks differently than before. Now he just says “yes,” “no,” “yes,” “no.” That’s all he says. That’s how he answers me.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, you’ve been listening to a Human Rights Watch video about parents separated from their children. Fifteen seconds, Dr. Paula J. Caplan, as you wrap up?

DR. PAULA CAPLAN: Well, we have a petition online that’s at Care2, and it’s called “Who’s Keeping Track? A Call for Continuous Media Attention on the Separation of Children from Refugee Parents.” We hope that everybody watching this will go and sign the petition, and we hope that Democracy Now! and other media people will keep reporting on this, will have this regular clock.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the key is getting information and the government giving information about how many children they’re still holding. Dr. Paula J. Caplan, I want to thank you for being with us, clinical and research psychologist, associate at the DuBois Institute at Harvard University.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back in 30 seconds, Cambodians, by the dozens, are being deported, after being in this country for decades. Stay with us.

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