The U.S. government should cover mental health treatment costs for immigrant children who officials separated from their parents, a new lawsuit argues.
The class-action lawsuit, filed by a group of lawyers in federal court this week, also seeks unspecified damages for children affected by the Trump administration’s now-reversed zero tolerance policy at the border.
The trauma the children and their families experienced, the suit argues, “was life altering and it will continue to affect their mental and emotional well-being for years to come.”
The suit, which was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts, comes as officials continue efforts to comply with a California federal court’s order to reunite families the government separated, including some families who were split up before the zero-tolerance policy began.
Nearly 500 children who were separated from their parents remain in government custody, according to the latest tally provided by officials in court filings last week. Officials and a steering committee led by the ACLU are working to track down hundreds of deported parents and reunite them with their children.
But this week’s lawsuit argues that reuniting families doesn’t do enough to repair the damage caused by the government’s policies.
“The damage is unbelievable, and the focus has been on reunification because, of course, the judge has ordered that,” attorney Jesse Bless told reporters Thursday. “But now it’s about restoration. And that is something the government is not taking responsibility for, but so desperately needs to be done, and we’re here to make sure that happens.”
Nightmares and ‘painful memories’
The lawsuit describes the experiences of three children purportedly among the more than 2,500 government officials separated from their parents.
One — an 11-year-old referred to in the lawsuit by his initials of C.J. — now wakes up with nightmares, according to the suit.
“Sometimes,” the lawsuit says, “C.J.’s nightmares are so bad that he falls out of bed.”
Another child — a 10-year-old referred to in the lawsuit by her initials of K.O. — “wakes up in the middle of the night, crying.” The girl also follows her mother whenever she leaves the room “and fears she will abandon her again,” the lawsuit says.
The 10-year-old and her 17-year-old older brother, identified in the lawsuit as E.O. Jr., remain tormented by “horrible, painful memories,” the suit argues.
The children and their parents are identified only by their initials due to fear of retaliation and social stigma, their attorneys said.
At a press conference on Thursday, the mother of the 10-year-old and 17-year-old teared up as she spoke to reporters.
“When they took our children from us, we thought that we weren’t going to see them again,” she said. “It was like a kidnapping.”
Health experts decried policy
This isn’t the first time advocates have suggested a government fund to pay for mental health treatment for children from separated families.
The ACLU also proposed such a measure in a court filing in July.
Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer declined to respond to the lawsuit’s allegations, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
“HHS is currently reviewing the recent court filing to determine next steps,” a spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families said in a statement.
A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman referred questions on the case to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Officials have previously defended the treatment of immigrant children in custody.
A number of prominent health experts, including pediatricians, psychiatrists and internists, spoke out against the “zero tolerance” policy before the administration ended it.
The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics told CNN in June that the policy amounted to “nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.”
“It’s creating a whole generation of kids who are traumatized,” Dr. Colleen Kraft said.