The facilities where things go from bad to worse for children separated from their parents

Children separated from their families are already arriving in these more secure facilities, lawyers say.

U.S. Border Patrol agents arrive to detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agents arrive to detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

The Trump administration has placed children who were separated from their families at the border in secure psychiatric facilities, according to organizations that work with migrant children.

In the past, children have accused similar facilities of forcing them to take powerful psychiatric drugs, abusing and neglecting them, and detaining them for months on end.

The administration has moved a small number of children who were separated from their families to secure psychiatric centers, said Ashley Feasley, policy director with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, during a call with reporters Wednesday.

Feasley declined to go into more detail about where the children have been placed, citing their confidentiality. A separate legal organization that works with migrant children also confirmed Wednesday that the government has placed at least one child who was separated from their family at the border in one of these more jail-like psychiatric facilities.


Newsday reported Wednesday that the administration has placed eight separated children at MercyFirst, in Syosset, New York, which operates a secure treatment facility. It wasn’t immediately clear if those children were spending their days in the center’s secure section.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and MercyFirst did not respond to requests for comment on whether separated children had been placed in these more secure facilities.

These types of facilities have faced intense scrutiny in federal courts, and lawyers who spoke with ThinkProgress say they violate the federal government’s legal requirement to keep migrant children in the “least restrictive conditions.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a law enforcement conference on Monday that HHS is taking good care of children it takes in due to a new Trump administration policy to separate children from parents who cross the border illegally so that the parents can be criminally prosecuted.


“They’re not put in jail, of course,” Sessions said of the children. “They’re taken care of. They remain in the country, even though they don’t have a lawful process to be here.”

That’s not entirely true, according to immigration lawyers who spoke with ThinkProgress. Migrant children in HHS custody can land in jail-like settings, including juvenile detention halls, for a host of reasons. Once there, immigration lawyers say, the children can be detained for months and have little recourse to challenge their detention. Many of the facilities where they’re placed have come under heavy criticism for inhumane treatment and poor living conditions.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday that he said would stop family separations at the border until Congress can take more permanent action, but it wasn’t immediately clear what impact the order would have.

In the meantime, HHS has charge of around 12,000 migrant children, of whom over 2,000 were separated from their families. The agency does not distinguish between the two groups once a child is in its custody.

Before Trump’s order, the number had been growing quickly, experts said, with Customs and Border Protection separating as many 65 children a day from their parents.

Horror stories

In a motion filed in federal court in April challenging HHS’ secure detention practices, several migrant children and their lawyers described their experiences in these more secure facilities. Several described semi-secure facilities where children have to wear uniforms, where internal and external doors are constantly locked, and where they live under 24-hour surveillance.


“The conditions of Paso are very different from those of the shelter in Kansas City,” one migrant child, identified in the motion only as Nicolás C., said in a declaration. “Everything has a key… I always have to wear a uniform, which makes me feel like a prisoner.”

The secure detention facilities, which are housed within juvenile jails, are even more restrictive. In the motion, migrant children who have been in these facilities report living in locked jail cells, being handcuffed and shackled, only getting one hour outside a day, and even being pepper sprayed by guards.

“If a child has a mental health issue in addition to behavioral concerns or criminal history warranting placement into a restrictive level of care, ORR may place the youth in a residential treatment center or other therapeutic setting,” according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some of the most harrowing stories, however, come from HHS’ residential treatment centers, or RTCs. Shiloh Treatment Center, in Manvel, Texas, is especially notorious for its poor treatment of migrant children.

In the April court motion, children reported being forced to take powerful psychiatric drugs by staff at the facility, who sometimes held children down and forced the medicine into their mouths or told them they would stay in detention longer if they refused medication. The motion also alleges HHS did not seek appropriate parental approval before medicating children in its care.

“Nobody asked me for my permission to give medications to my daughter, even though the staff at Shiloh has always had my telephone number and address,” a woman identified only as the mother of a girl named Isabella M. said.

In exhibits in the same court case, which were first reported by Reveal, children reported being forcibly injected with antipsychotic drugs, slammed against a door, and choked by Shiloh staff.

The eight separated children at the MercyFirst secure psychiatric center in New York are from Central America and range from six to 12 years old, Gerard McCaffery, president and CEO, told local reporters.  

That facility has also faced accusations of forcing medication on children. One unnamed 15-year-old Mexican migrant said in an exhibit in the April 2018 filing that MercyFirst staff forced him to take psychiatric medications. When he tried to refuse, staff put him on the “red level,” which meant he couldn’t leave the unit.

This boy had an especially turbulent time, moving through the detention pipeline for a year and nine months after first arriving in the U.S. Before MercyFirst, he was at Shenandoah Juvenile Detention Center for seven months, where he said “staff members would say ugly things about [his] mother and [his] family members.”

“I think they did that to try to make me mad and to act out,” the court filing says. For this, he was sent to solitary confinement, sometimes for as long as three and a half weeks.

Shiloh directed requests for comment to HHS.

The practice of forcing psychiatric medication on young migrant children isn’t isolated to the Shiloh and Mercy treatment centers, according to Nithya Nathan-Pineau, an immigration lawyer who represents migrant children at two secure detention facilities in Virginia.

“We’ve heard children in secure detention and staff-secure detention taking medication and not knowing the names of the medication or what they’re for, and also being told that if they don’t take the medication, that will be counted against their behavior,” she told ThinkProgress. “So that’s pretty consistent with what children have reported to us.”

A broken system

After initial processing, CBP turns children over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an arm of HHS. The vast majority of these kids spend roughly a month in a licensed, ORR-contracted shelter until they are placed with a relative, sponsor, or foster care agency.

But HHS also contracts with three secure detention centers and several semi-secure facilities and psychiatric treatment centers spread across the country. These facilities hold a small fraction of migrant children HHS deems dangerous or disruptive — anything from a fight to a suspected gang affiliation to a mental health crisis.

“We’ve seen a number of children who have tried to run away from shelter facilities being moved to the secure detention facilities because they tried to abscond,” said Nathan-Pineau. “We see children who have pretty significant trauma and who are living with mental illness and so may have some behavioral issues because of the trauma that they’ve survived.”

She and two other lawyers who work with clients at the two secure Virginia facilities said they have not seen any children there who were separated from their families at the border — all of their clients are children who came to the U.S. alone.

The third secure facility, in Yolo County, California, said in a statement that it has not received any separated children from HHS. The county contracts 24 beds in its juvenile detention center to HHS for migrant children who usually range between 15 and 17 years old, and it can decline to accept children it thinks may not meet HHS’ secure placement criteria.

“The County does not, and has no interest in, operating a de facto federal prison for forcibly separated youth,” the statement read.

But Nathan-Pineau and other lawyers who spoke with ThinkProgress worry it’s just a matter of time before more separated children wind up in these jail-like settings.

“We haven’t seen any of the family separation cases yet — probably just because I don’t know if any of them have made their way to Virginia,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center, who also works with kids at the two Virginia facilities. “But I’m sure we will any day now.”

The National Center for Youth Law works with children at semi-secure, secure, and psychiatric facilities across the country. Jesse Hahnel, its executive director, said children separated from their families at the border are at acute risk for being “stepped up,” in HHS’ terminology, to a secure facility where they could be detained for months.

“Undoubtedly, children that are ripped away from their parents at the border are experiencing an extreme form of trauma that they are not equipped to handle,” Hahnel told ThinkProgress in an email. “This trauma may lead to intense mental health distress that paves the path to their being stepped up to more secure facilities.”

HHS places kids in a more secure facility when they pose a danger to themselves or others, or if they’ve been charged with a criminal offense, according to information on its website. But the reasons for making that determination can vary widely, from suicidal feelings to fighting and acting out to suspected gang affiliation, according to court filings and lawyers who spoke with ThinkProgress.

“We had a case in which a kid felt guilty about failing to prevent his friend’s murder and expressed that to the social worker… who was at the shelter when he was first doing intake,” said Sandoval-Moshenberg. That was enough for the kid to be tagged as gang-involved because his friend was killed by gang members. The two-year odyssey of trying to get him out only ended after a federal judge ordered him released.

According to lawyers and court filings, the government does not give children enough notice before moving them to a secure facility or afford them a real chance to challenge that decision before they’re already in the secure-placement system.

“They may be given a written notice of why they’re being stepped up, but they often, they don’t totally understand it,” Nathan-Pineau said. “Or it’s not something that’s very clear to them. The process isn’t very clear.”

Once a migrant child is in secure placement, it can be months before they get out. In court filings, children describe not knowing whether they had a right to challenge their placement in secure facilities or how to get “stepped down” out of the secure-placement system.

“The way the system is set up right now, once you get tagged there’s literally no process to challenge that, contest that, to get untagged, to say ‘No, I’m not actually a bad kid. You got me wrong,’” Sandoval-Moshenberg told ThinkProgress.

In May, the Legal Aid Justice Center helped a 16-year-old boy who crossed over the U.S. border alone get out of a Virginia juvenile center where HHS had detained him for nine months. The agency only released him into the custody of his uncle, who lives in the U.S., after the family threatened to sue.

Kids in Need of Defense views the administration’s new policy of separating families as just another roll back of protections for children in federal custody. After DHS first reportedly began separating families in March 2017, ICE also began to target sponsors for deportation and criminal prosecution. In June 2017, they also began to slow down the process of when kids can be released from secure facilities by requiring the ORR Children’s Services Director approve the release of kids there.

“Nearly all of these kids have some other relatives who would be more than happy to take care of them,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. “And the government is just making that impossible these days.”

Have you lived or worked in an HHS facility for migrant children? Contact reporters Amanda Gomez at or Joshua Eaton at You can also reach them on the secure messaging app Signal at 202-684-1030.