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How women and children in detention on the border can be re-traumatized

Thursday, July 11th, 2019

The following information is from a research report by Casa de Esperanza’s National Latin@ Network and St. Edward’s University. Download the entire report for free here: http://nationallatinonetwork.org/images/Family_Detention_Report_English.pdf

Replicating Violence and Trauma

An overwhelming number of women in immigrant detention are survivors of violence, abuse and trauma, having experienced violence directly or having been exposed to tremendous suffering and traumatic events prior to being detained. Many explicitly fled severe domestic violence and sexual violence in their home countries, leaving loved ones and support systems behind in search of safety and protection for themselves and their children. These experiences are compounded by exposure to gang violence, femicide, exploitation, and human trafficking. Women and children carry these backgrounds of violence and trauma with them when they land in detention facilities. The
restrictive nature of detention facilities and the highly controlled movement and regimented schedule can re-trigger negative mental health outcomes associated with past gender-based violence.

The prison-like conditions and lack of information are significant considering the trauma most women experienced prior to being detained. In describing her work within detention centers, one mental health provider stated, “one of the things that really shocked me was the level of trauma that these women had experienced.” Another reported, “I cannot think of a single female client whom I’ve represented who has not been sexually assaulted. They all have been. It is ubiquitous.” Research participants described a wide range of trauma-related responses among those detained, including persistent fear and sense of danger, difficulty sleeping, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, feelings of shame or guilt, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts. Participants described these responses as being connected to pre-migration and migration-related experiences and to the detention setting itself.

Mental health services vary from one detention facility to another, though psychologists or other mental health providers are often available for short-term consultations. While regular recreational or entertainment activities are provided in some detention facilities, such as movies and popcorn on Fridays, social and emotional needs remain inadequately addressed. Women report feeling sad and isolated, and the constant monitoring and regimented schedule hinder women’s ability to offer and receive social support from one another. Overall, research participants’ descriptions of detention, in particular the lack of information and transparency, lack of choice and decision-making, use of intimidation and threats, frequently changing rules, extreme power differentials, lack of emotional safety, and criminalization of asylum-seekers, reveal that trauma-informed approaches are not practiced.

Furthermore, trauma responses are compounded or exacerbated by attending high-stakes court hearings and providing difficult, if not re-traumatizing, testimony from within the restrictive and bewildering setting of detention. Trauma responses, lack of information about the process, and distrust of officials further impede women’s ability to
conform to what is expected of them during asylum proceedings.

Research participants also described the detention setting as mirroring or replicating the patterns and characteristics of power and control that are emblematic of intimate partner violence and human trafficking. In other words, the practices and conditions of detention serve to replicate, or are reminiscent of, control tactics used by abusers and traffickers. These include: restricting mobility; keeping women and children in cold hieleras; keeping lights on at all hours; disrupting sleep with bed checks; insults and humiliation; withholding information; ever-changing rules and expectations; restricting access to support; isolating women from one another; from their own children, and from the community; intimidation; and threats. When one woman asked an immigration official how she could get a waiver for a bond she was unable to pay, in the amount of $7,500, he responded with a threat, “ya no me sigas preguntando por que te voy a subir la fianza.”1

Interviews for this study took place before the spring 2018 “zero tolerance” policies put into effect by the U.S. Department of Justice that resulted in large numbers of children being separated from parents. Nonetheless, family separation occurred in other ways prior to “zero tolerance.” Some women were separated or isolated from their children while in detention. A healthcare provider described responding to the traumatic response of a woman whose children had been taken from her, “They take the 8-month-old and the 3-year-old and they put them in a room. They separate the mother from her children. They put them in a room next to the mother, but the mother can’t have contact with them. Here’s the mother. She flips out. Not a clinical term, but I don’t know what else you would call it.

1“Stop asking me or I’ll raise the bond amount.”

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