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.
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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by Paula J. Caplan