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Paula Joan Caplan's Authors Guild Blog

How Long Have the Children Been Gone? U.S. Government's Separation of Refugee Children from Parents

by Paula J. Caplan
 
It's easy to lose sight of major tragedies in a world filled with them. That makes it essential to personalize suffering, to connect it to our own experiences. Any parent who has dropped off their child for the first day of daycare or preschool and found the child's anguish and even fear painful to see can only begin to imagine how it is for both refugee parents and children whom the United States government has torn from each other and kept separate for months…or longer.
 
During the Iran hostage period, newscaster Walter Cronkite never let the nation forget what was happening: Each night, he announced the number of days that had passed since the start of the Iran hostage crisis. In contrast, while uncounted and even uncountable numbers of children of refugees are being held in isolation from their parents in the United States, warehoused as punishment for the parents' search for a better life or their desperate flight from dangers in their home countries, these tragedies go off media people's radar and out of the minds and hearts of the public except on rare occasions. We shouldn't have to wait for another refugee child to die to keep these horrors in front of us.
 
I couldn't get out of my head the images of these children and could not stop imagining them wondering, "Where are my parents? Don't they love me? Will I ever see them again? Who are these people who come in here and speak in a language I don't understand Why doesn't anyone hug me? Why is it freezing in here? Why do I have to sleep on this hard floor with only a thin cover? Why do they stick needles in me with medicine that makes me feel awful? [Some of the children have been injected with psychiatric drugs.] What did I do wrong?"
 
I began by contacting Veterans For Peace Former National President Mike Ferner and VFP Cofounder and current Maine VFP Chapter President Doug Rawlings, whose encouragement and assistance helped lead to the creation of a coalition aiming to keep the current horrors about the children constantly before the public.
 
On Human Rights Day, December 10, 2018, a dozen human rights and violence/trauma organizations and more than three dozen individuals working in these fields issued a press release called "Who's Keeping Track? A Call for Continuous Media Attention on the Separation of Children from Refugee Parents." The crux of the release was a call for major U.S. news media outlets to dramatize the growing number of days these separations have lasted by asking them to follow Cronkite's example, announcing every day how many days have passed since the first children (as far as can be determined) were taken from their refugee parents. Also included in the release was a link to a petition where all can endorse the call: https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/387/953/389/
 
Our coalition recognizes that this seems to be a small step, but every day that the public forgets these horrors is another day the children and parents suffer, another day the government gets away with continuing the nightmare and in fact increasing these separations. Furthermore, stories about Cronkite's daily announcements by Washington Post columnist Ellen Goodman and Public Radio International (at 11:58) show how powerful they were. 
 
When no media response was forthcoming, the coalition created the howlonghavethechildrenbeengone.com website, which displays a clock ticking the seconds away, with this message: 
"This clock shows the amount of time passed since the first child -- as far as can be confirmed -- was separated from their refugee parent(s) on April 6, 2018. Undoubtedly, these punitive separations had been going on even before then. Please watch the clock, and put yourself in the position of such a child -- and then of their parent -- and vividly picture what it is like, one second at a time, to be going through what they are experiencing." 
 
The coalition's members hope that viewers will imagine how profoundly it affects the children to wonder why this has happened, whether their parents allowed it to happen, whether their parents love them, why no one speaks to them in their language, why it is so cold where they are warehoused, why no one hugs them, and why – for some – they are injected with drugs that make them feel horrible and/or sexually abused.
 
The website will remain up until the practice ends.
 
Veterans for Peace was the first organization to sign on to the initiative, and the other original signatory entities were the Association for Women in Psychology; Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care; Institute on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma; International Museum of Human Rights at San Diego; National Association for Rights Protection and Advocacy; National Partnership to End Interpersonal Violence; National Latinx Psychological Association; Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility, Section IX of Division 39, American Psychological Association; Psychologists for Social Responsibility; and Psychotherapy Action Network. Subsequent endorsers are Eve Ensler's V-Day Project, Robert Shetterly's Americans Who Tell the Truth, ChildUSA, and the Academy on Violence and Abuse.
 
The press release included our statement that in the past year, "to the best of our knowledge, 2,667 babies and children were separated from their refugee parents for an average of 83 days each, though recent news is that the number may well be twice that high. Of those, 140 are yet to be reunited and 30 will not be returned to their parents.  The trauma and emotional devastation and damage to these children, as well as to their parents, are unconscionable and in some cases will be irreparable. One lawsuit already filed even alleges children were injected with powerful, dangerous psychiatric drugs."  
 
Still worse, the actual number of separated children may never be known, due to a combination of the government's covering up of the facts and shockingly irresponsibly poor record-keeping. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/why-we-may-never-know-the-true-number-of-family-separations?fbclid=IwAR109-vcygENzMlQqOPRfys66Nxs_WAjuM1Xgm94BpY90XJ11d7XE-7W__g
 
Recognizing the impossibility of learning when the practice actually began, the coalition's clock starts from April 6, 2018, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions initiated what was called a "zero tolerance" policy and directed U.S. Attorneys to prosecute for illegal entry all those apprehended along the Southwest border. Part of the policy of prosecution was to separate parents from their children, and it has emerged that government agencies failed even to record the movements and locations of some children and some parents, making their reunification virtually impossible.
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Leaders of the National Disability Rights Network, whose Protection & Advocacy (P&A) members are among the few people allowed entrance to places where these children are being held, said in a December 18, 2018, press release that after visiting more than 25 facilities in eight states, they had "identified children with a wide variety of disabilities (Intellectual/Developmental, Psychiatric, and Deaf) and unmet needs." They warned that problems identified in these facilities included "drugging, lack of education and treatment." They reported that during some of their monitoring visits, staff at the facilities "have stated that there are no children with disabilities in the facility, yet [the P&As] could see children who appear to have disabilities during the visits."  They called the treatment in at least some facilities "in question" and noted that their distance from potential sponsors and/or family affects "both their bond with caring adults and also their family's ability to monitor their conditions of confinement."
 
Other problems the P&As noted were "lack of reasonable accommodation for children with disabilities, …little evidence of treatment for children with disabilities of all sorts," poor and inconsistent provision of education, and isolation of children from the community.
 
When a source who requested anonymity was asked why some among the relatively small numbers professionals and activists who are allowed to enter the children's holding facilities have not videotaped the conditions and made them public, their response was that that would likely lead to still further restrictions on who would be allowed access.
 
 "The welfare of these children has too quickly passed largely out of view of the public. We urge the media to move quickly to ensure ongoing media coverage of this massive human tragedy," said Sandi Capuano Morrison, CEO of the Institute on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma.  
 
A Democracy Now! Interview with a coalition representative is at https://www.democracynow.org/2018/12/19/mental_health_experts_rights_groups_call

 
 

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Myths are Used to Justify Depriving People Diagnosed as Mentally Ill of Their Human Rights

Who in this world ought to have the right to make decisions about their lives, and who is required to lose that right and have the medical community and the courts take over?

Despite the fact that no one in history, not even the omnipotent American Psychiatric Association -- which produces and profits mightily from the "Bible" of mental disorders -- has come up with a halfway good definition of "mental illness," and despite the fact that the process of creating and applying the labels of mental illness is unscientific, any of those labels can be used to deprive the person so labeled of their human rights. This is terrifying. It ought to terrify those who are so labeled and those who are not, because deprivation of human rights on totally arbitrary grounds is inhumane and immoral.

The combination of the specter of terrorism and highly publicized incidents of gun violence have led rapidly to politicians, therapists, and the general public blaming "the mentally ill" for these dangers, and that is used to justify depriving not just terrorists and other killers but anyone with a label of mental disorder of their rights. They can be locked up against their will, they can be ordered to comply with just about anything that a professional calls "treatment of the mentally ill," no matter how these actions can harm the person and in the absence of scientific evidence that the "treatments" of people who have been psychiatrically labeled will prevent violence. In other words, the huge leap is often made from "This person has a psychiatric label" to "This person is therefore dangerous to themselves and others," even in the absence of any history or current indication of such dangerousness, and that leap is then used to lock people up and/or otherwise "treat" them against their will.

Now the United Nations human rights treaty called the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities includes the absolute prohibition of forced commitment and forced treatment, and the brilliant and tireless advocate Tina Minkowitz is leading a campaign to show that there is a wide base of support for these prohibitions. This is especially important in the United States, because 162 nations have ratified the CRPD, but the U.S. has not.

Minkowitz worked on drafting and negotiations for the treaty from 2002-2006 and helped ensure the incorporation in the CRPD of Article 12, which says that "states," countries and national governments bound by international law recognize that people with disabilities have the right to make their own decisions in all aspects of life and to do so free from coercion. Note that "people with disabilities" applies to anyone who has received a diagnosis of any mental disorder (in addition to other disabilities). It is important to note the CRPD's Article14, which specifies according to the text and the authoritative interpretation by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that the existence of disability or perceived disability cannot be used to justify deprivation of liberty, and Article 25 requires that healthcare be provided on the basis of free and informed consent. The word "perceived" is crucial, in light of the fact that the ballooning numbers of categories listed as mental disorders in the two primary handbooks used to classify people as mentally ill have made it possible, even likely, that anyone entering a therapist's or other professional's office in other than a calm and happy state will be diagnosed as psychiatrically disordered, moving just about anyone into the "perceived as disabled" category. So one crucial myth that is relevant to the CRPD is that psychiatric diagnoses are scientific and usually appropriately applied.

If no harm came from being classified as mentally ill, there would be less cause for alarm. But it is easy, even likely, for laypeople, therapists and other healthcare professionals, and judges to assume wrongly that having a disability (even a perceived disability) means that one's judgment is impaired and that one should not be allowed to make choices about their lives, their bodies, and the treatments to which they will be subjected. Frequently, the criterion of "dangerous to oneself and/or others" is used to justify forced commitment or forced treatment, and this is done despite the proven fact that people diagnosed as mentally ill are actually less likely than others to commit acts of violence and more likely to be victims of violence. The evidence for this pattern is all the more remarkable, given that for a number of reasons (e.g., defense attorneys trying to get psychiatric labels for their clients in order to obtain reduced sentences or diversion from prison to the mental health system; the skyhigh frequency of prisoners being diagnosed as mentally ill so that they can be heavily medicated and thus reduce the need for prison staff), statistics in the near future are likely to show an increasingly high correlation between psychiatric labels and violence. Thus, two other crucial myths that are relevant to the CRPD are that people who have received psychiatric labels are likely to be incompetent to make choices about their lives and that they are more likely than other people to be violent.

A fourth crucial myth is that forced commitment and forced treatment are beneficial (and, by implication, not harmful). That this is a myth is reflected in the high rates of suicide that follow inpatient treatment and the increased rates of suicide caused by many psychiatric drugs, as well as the plummeting rates of recovery and increased rates of longterm disability that have followed the introduction of various psychiatric drugs into the market and the use of electroshock.

Another myth is this: The important word "orthogonal" applies to the question of whether people diagnosed as mentally ill are able to make their own choices and whether they have good judgment. We all know people who have no psychiatric labels but who make terrible choices and poor judgment, yet those limitations are not used to deprive the of their human rights. These capacities are orthogonal to whether or not one has been diagnosed as mentally ill, meaning that knowing whether or not a person has a diagnosis is simply not a predictor of their judgment and ability to make good choices for themselves. A related myth is that if someone is diagnosed as mentally ill, all of their decision making power must be wrenched away from them, when -- as with many people who are not so diagnosed -- sometimes what the person needs is a little support of various kinds, including assistance with filling out forms or practical help with cooking or shopping or getting a service animal during times when they are struggling.

The CRPD standard is for people who have or are perceived to have disabilities must be provided the opportunity to give free and informed consent. That is very far from what happens with the vast majority of people treated by psychotherapists, not to mention those who are deprived of their human rights. Consider this: Psychiatric diagnosis is the bedrock, the first cause of everything bad that happens to people in and through the mental health system. If they do not diagnose you, they cannot treat (or "treat") you, whether or not the treatments are helpful to you. But almost no one who enters a therapist's office is ever fully informed and thus almost no one is put in a position where they even might give informed consent. Why? There are three reasons:

(1) They are almost never told, "In order for your insurance to pay my bills, I will have to give you a psychiatric diagnosis, but you have the right to know that psychiatric diagnoses are unscientific, that getting one does not help alleviate suffering, and that getting one carries a wide array of risks of harm, from plummeting self-confidence to loss of employment and of child custody and of security clearance...even to death from treatments that are justified on the basis of your label."
(2) They are almost never told, "I am recommending Treatment X, but I am going to tell you everything about the potential benefits and potential kinds of harm that can result." The reason they are almost never told this is that these days, the vast majority of treatments are with psychiatric drugs, and lawsuits have repeatedly revealed that the drug companies purposefully conceal much of the harm, so there is no way for conscientious therapists to get that information and thus no way for them to convey it to their patients. Something similar happens with electroshock and with expensive but intensively marketed programs called things like "neurobiofeedback" that have not been shown to be helpful but that are often very costly.
(3) They are almost never told, "I am recommending Treatment X, but I am also going to describe for you the huge array of approaches that have been helpful to people who are going through what you are going through ... and that often carry little or no risks of harm."

Alarmed about the lack of disclosure, which puts suffering people who seek help in the mental health system at huge risk of harm with no way even to know what questions to ask and what recommendations to challenge, I organized the filing of nine complaints to the Ethics Department of the American Psychiatric Association, because that APA publishes and hugely profits from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), whose categories had been used against the complaints with tragic effects. We said that if the APA had honestly disclosed the unscientific nature of its categories and the risks of harm, as well as that getting a label would be helpful largely or only in order to get insurance coverage for treatment, the complainants would not have blindly accepted their labels and the treatments that were justified to them on the basis of the labels ("You have Disorder Y, so you should accept Treatment Z, because that is what is used for people with Y"). The APA dismissed the complaints on spurious grounds and with not one iota of attention to their merits.

Five of those complainants then filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The complaints were filed pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to which people can be discriminated against by being treated as though they are disabled (mentally ill in these cases) when in fact they are not. All of the complainants had been experiencing upsetting life situations but should by no means have been diagnosed as mentally ill. Yet according to the (falsely-marketed as scientific) DSM, they were mentally ill, and the treatments that were justified on the basis of their labels had had devastating consequences for them. The OCR dismissed the complaints on spurious grounds and with no attention to their merits.

The outcomes of these complaints provide a solid paper trail revealing that in the United States, the enterprise of psychiatric diagnosis is entirely unregulated. This makes it even less regulated than the major financial institutions whose unregulated actions seriously damaged the economy. The paper trail shows that both the lobby group called the APA, which earned more than $100 million from the last edition of the DSM and spent not one cent to reveal the truth about its manual or to warn of the harms they knew about, and the government entity (OCR of HHS) that by all rights ought to provide oversight and regulation, have chosen to do nothing. This makes it all the more compelling for all of us to press for the United States government to ratify the CRPD. The loss of human rights of just one of us through fraudulent advertising, cover-ups, and perpetuation of dangerous myths is the loss of human rights of us all.

As a U.S. citizen, I am embarrassed and appalled that as this country discusses whether or not to ratify the CRPD, it wants to add what are called "RUDs," reservations, understandings, and declarations created by the current federal administration and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. According to Minkowitz, these include the claim that U.S law already fulfills or exceeds the obligations our country would have under the CRPD treaty. The above described complaints that we filed -- and the rejection of those complaints by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services's Office of Civil Rights gives the lie to that claim, since there is simply no governmental regulation of psychiatric diagnosis, and diagnosis is the sine qua non of forced commitment and forced treatment.  Read More