Im­mi­grant fam­i­lies strug­gling with trauma of sep­a­ra­tion

The Progress-Index Weekend - - OBITUARIES - By Julie Wat­son and Mor­gan Lee Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — A 6-year-old im­mi­grant boy sobs at the school bus stop in sub­ur­ban Mary­land and begs his mother to promise she will not dis­ap­pear again.

A tod­dler in Hon­duras wakes up scream­ing and searches for the gov­ern­ment so­cial worker who cared for him for sev­eral months. Other chil­dren duck or hide their faces when they see a uni­formed of­fi­cer.

Fam­i­lies who were sep­a­rated at the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and then re­united with their chil­dren say they are suf­fer­ing deep emo­tional wounds and want the U.S. gov­ern­ment to pay for men­tal health treat­ment to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion.

The fam­i­lies say the joy­ous re­unions that oc­curred af­ter the gov­ern­ment re­versed its pol­icy have given way to ag­o­niz­ing daily rou­tines as they’ve set­tled back into life in the U.S. and Cen­tral Amer­ica. They say both the chil­dren and par­ents are trau­ma­tized by the or­deal.

Once easy-go­ing chil­dren are now jumpy, dis­obe­di­ent, short­tem­pered and afraid of school, their par­ents say. They have night­mares on a reg­u­lar ba­sis. Lit­tle things trig­ger tears, even in older kids.

“I can’t sleep away from my son, nor he from me,” Iris Eufra­gio said in a phone in­ter­view with The Associated Press from Rosedale, Mary­land, where she and her 6-year-old boy, Eder­son, are liv­ing with fam­ily friends while they seek asy­lum af­ter flee­ing vi­o­lence in Hon­duras.

The gov­ern­ment sep­a­rated them at the bor­der in June and re­united them un­der court or­der af­ter the boy spent a month at a Phoenix de­ten­tion cen­ter.

The son is strug­gling to ad­just. As a kinder­gart­ner in Hon­duras, he loved school. Now teach­ers have had to em­brace him to stop him from run­ning off cam­pus to get back to his mother. He keeps ask­ing whether he may have to re­turn to a de­ten­tion cen­ter.

“Just see­ing a po­lice car makes him scared,” Eufra­gio said

A fed­eral class-ac­tion law­suit filed this week seeks un­spec­i­fied fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion and the cre­ation of a fund to pay for men­tal health treat­ment for more than 2,000 chil­dren who were taken from their par­ents af­ter they crossed the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der this spring as part of the gov­ern­ment’s “zero tol­er­ance” pol­icy.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion de­clined to com­ment.

Re­searchers and med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als have an­a­lyzed the ef­fects of trau­ma­tiz­ing events on chil­dren over the years, and stud­ies have shown that per­sis­tent stress may al­ter brain struc­ture in re­gions af­fect­ing emo­tions and reg­u­lat­ing be­hav­ior. Imag­ing stud­ies have found these re­gions are smaller than usual in se­verely trau­ma­tized chil­dren, and the dam­age may be worse the younger the child be­cause the brain is still de­vel­op­ing.

Jenifer Wolf Wil­liams, who is among thou­sands of U.S. men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als of­fer­ing free ser­vices to help the fam­i­lies, said re­cov­ery takes longer than peo­ple think. If not treated prop­erly, chil­dren may be­come teens who en­gage in self­de­struc­tive be­hav­ior and strug­gle to make the right choices.

The Texas ther­a­pist, who has coun­seled im­mi­grants sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies for var­i­ous rea­sons, said these kinds of sep­a­ra­tions can be even more trau­matic for im­mi­grants from Latin Amer­ica where the cul­ture is cen­tered on large ex­tended fam­i­lies.

Thou­sands of miles away in Hon­duras, Baby Jo­han al­most nightly lets out pierc­ing screams. He stops when his mother men­tions Emily, the so­cial worker who cared for him in U.S. gov­ern­ment cus­tody. To make him feel bet­ter, she some­times plays Jo­han the old videos the so­cial worker had sent to his par­ents.

Jo­han — who cap­tured the world’s at­ten­tion by ap­pear­ing be­fore a judge in di­a­pers — spent a third of his life at a U.S. gov­ern­ment-con­tracted shel­ter in Ari­zona af­ter be­ing sep­a­rated from his fa­ther at the bor­der in May.

When he re­turned home in July he didn’t seem to rec­og­nize his par­ents at first. Since then, he has re­fused to play with his toys, drink from his bot­tle or eat much, re­ject­ing the food he once loved, like ba­nanas.

He can’t sleep with­out the lights on. He vac­il­lates be­tween hold­ing onto his mother with an iron-clad em­brace to hit­ting her to shut­ting down.

“I won­der if this is nor­mal for a tod­dler, but he cries out like he’s hav­ing night­mares, he yells loudly like he’s trau­ma­tized,” said his mother, Adali­cia Mon­te­ci­nos, who is eight months preg­nant with her sec­ond child. “We thought once we got him back, ev­ery­thing would go back to nor­mal, but he acts so trau­ma­tized, we don’t know what to do.”

His fa­ther, Rolando An­to­nio Bueso Castillo, is con­sumed by guilt for ever tak­ing him. He feels an­gry that his son, then 10-months-old, was sep­a­rated from him. He said he agreed to be de­ported be­cause he was told he would get his son back im­me­di­ately.

But Jo­han spent five months at a shel­ter in Phoenix. He spoke his first words and took his first steps there.

Bueso Castillo wants to file a law­suit against the U.S. as well. But the bus driver, who makes $10a-day, doesn’t have the means to pur­sue it.

“This is all their fault,” he said.

Isai Valen­zuela Se­gura, a 29-yearold Gu­atemalan, who was re­united with his 9-year-old son on July 26, wishes he could do more to help his boy, like a hire a coun­selor. The fa­ther has turned to his faith to guide him, read­ing the Bi­ble to his son on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

“I thought when I saw my son that he’d be happy, but he asked me why I left him. He said, ‘You left me alone for 41 days. You don’t know how much I suf­fered,’” said Valen­zuela Se­gura, who is liv­ing with his son in Ten­nessee while they seek asy­lum af­ter flee­ing vi­o­lence in Gu­atemala.


A mother from Gu­atemala, left, iden­ti­fied only by ini­tials L.J., who was sep­a­rated from her two chil­dren af­ter en­ter­ing the U.S. in May 2018, re­ceives sup­port from trans­la­tor Brenda Quin­tana, right, af­ter speak­ing to re­porters about the sep­a­ra­tion dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day in Bos­ton. L.J. is among plain­tiffs in a law­suit against Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, seek­ing mon­e­tary dam­ages on be­half of chil­dren who were sep­a­rated from their par­ents at the bor­der.

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