HHS official says he warned about the trauma family separation would cause and was ignored

The administration moved forward with the policy anyway.

U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Commander Jonathan White testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building.  (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Commander Jonathan White testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building. (CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

An official at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the government agency tasked with looking after families separated at the border due to the Trump administration’s now-reversed “zero tolerance” policy, says he warned others in the administration that family separation could have a traumatic affect on the children.

Jonathan White, an executive director in the office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday about the family separation crisis. The former deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and a trained clinical social worker, White said he was involved in multiple discussions about immigration policies that could result in the separation of families throughout the course of a year and repeatedly “raised a number of concerns… about any policy which would result in family separation.”

“There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child,” White said.

According to White, he and other ORR employees who raised concerns about family separations at the border were told “there was no policy which would result in separation of children from family units,” echoing the patently false talking point parroted by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.


In contrast, HHS Secretary Alex Azar has defended the family separation policy, calling it one of the “greatest acts of American generosity.”

White left his post at ORR just a few weeks before the administration proceeded with implementing the “zero tolerance” policy that led to the separation of over 2,000 children from their families. As of Tuesday, more than 700 children remain separated from their families because their parents have been deemed ineligible for reunification or were deported.

While surely not the only example of the trauma of family separation, on Tuesday The New York Times published a story that provides insight into exactly what HHS officials warned would happen to children forcibly separated from their parents. Five-year-old Thiago was separated at the border from his mother for over 50 days. Now reunited, his mother says he isn’t the same child. He begs to be breastfed and is suffering from separation anxiety. Instead of playing with the toys he used to love, Thiago now pretends to pat down and handcuff “migrants.”

The report also references a 3-year-old boy who similarly pretends to handcuff and vaccinate people, “behavior he almost certainly witnessed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, according to those working with him.”


At some HHS-contracted facilities, children have reportedly been pinned down and drugged with psychotropic medication. There is also evidence that some children at  Shiloh Residential Treatment Center in Manvel, Texas were not able to have any private phone calls and on some occasions were prohibited from leaving the living space to get drinking water. A child reportedly tried to leave the area for drinking water once and was thrown to the floor by a guard, injuring the child’s elbow.

Mental health organizations have long warned of the potential effects of the Trump administration’s immigration policies on young children, particularly as it relates to family separation. Experts say post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attachment issues, anxiety, and depression are just some of the effects family separation can have on a child. Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, specifically called the policy “child abuse.”