We Used To Give Migrant Kids Therapy To *Help Them*, Not Nail Them, Isn't That So Funny?
In an attempt to prevent immigrant kids from getting asylum, the government is going through notes taken in counseling sessions and picking out items that can be used against the kids, even though the counselors assured the kids the sessions would be confidential. What's worse, the practice may be technically legal, although obviously it's unethical as fuck. The government insists it's absolutely necessary to protect America, because when some kids discuss the traumas that led them to seek asylum in the US, they also say things that can be used to suggest they're dangerous thugs who might kill us all.
In the Washington Post, Hannah Dreier focuses on the ordeal of one young Honduran asylum-seeker, Kevin Euceda, who lived through hell and escaped an MS-13 group that wanted him to kill someone to prove his loyalty to the gang. In 2017, he crossed the Rio Grande with his older sister; she was 18, so was quickly deported. But Kevin, then 17, was placed in a youth shelter that contracted with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for housing minor immigrants until they're placed with sponsors (or, increasingly, until they're old enough to deport). By law, all detained kids are required to see a counselor within 72 hours of coming into the ORR system, under the 1997 settlement meant to protect detained kids. Haha, joke's on you, Kevin: Under Trump, those sessions were no longer confidential, although the counselor — a recent graduate doing work toward her professional license — didn't know her notes would be turned over to ICE, either.
Kevin told the therapist, Leyanira Trevino, that after his abusive grandmother died, MS-13 moved into the shack where he lived, and made him run errands and sell drugs. They also forced him to participate in the beating of a cousin who refused to join; Kevin, fearing for his own life, kicked him once and ran away, and the gang shot the cousin dead. A week after, he was ordered to kill someone, and he fled with his sister. He got text messages telling him he'd be killed if he ever came back.
[Kevin] walked out of the session feeling lighter for having shared some of his most shameful secrets, while Trevino finished her three-page report with an account of how she'd counseled him:
"Clinician used client centered approach, providing active listening, empathy, and clarification," she wrote. "Youth states feeling safe and secure."
Then, because Kevin had mentioned gang activity, Trevino followed policy and sent her report to the shelter director and four regional ORR supervisors. A few days later, Kevin met with a second therapist who added several details to Trevino's report, including that "Unaccompanied child states that his involvement in the gang included physically assaulting victims."
Because of the mention of gang activity, ORR handed Kevin over to ICE, which sent him to a high-security juvenile facility — the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia, which has recently come under scrutiny for its harsh treatment of kids with mental illnesses. He was labeled as having "engaged in violent or malicious behavior," and no, being forced into it as a child was no excuse. In America, young people are only given a break when they have athletic scholarships.
Kevin felt utterly betrayed, as he should have been, because the cruelty is the point, as Dreier explains:
This therapy has historically been carried out with the mission of supporting children during a stressful time. In 2017, ORR began modifying that mission. Shortly after being appointed by Trump, then-ORR head Scott Lloyd introduced a policy of moving minors who self-disclosed gang ties to secure detention, and, as he said in congressional testimony, "working to enhance our day-to-day consultations" with ICE. Explaining further in a recent interview, Lloyd said he acted in response to concerns about criminals coming across the border. "There definitely were policy changes," he said. "I could see there being no downside to just sharing information."
That's the same brain genius who, until courts stopped him, saw no downside to forcing girls who'd been raped to carry their pregnancies to term, or to tracking detained girls' periods.
At Shenandoah, Kevin at first refused to talk to the counselor there, for obvious reasons, but after he tried to hurt himself, a staff counselor, Andrew Mayles — also a recent grad finishing his licensure — sent Kevin for an assessment. Mayles helped Kevin open up, and even got him into a program that declared him a victim of "severe human trafficking," which should have helped his asylum case and led to his release.
But again, the change in rules ultimately led to Mayles's sessions notes being shared with ICE, which twisted the information to argue Kevin should be deported because he was a danger to the public. In one session, Kevin said he was so frustrated he "often feels like he is going to explode." ICE, and later the Justice Department, portrayed Kevin in asylum and bond hearings as a violent MS-13 thug who'd almost certainly explode in a violent rage if he were ever released:
Kevin is now 19 and in an adult detention facility; his immigration judge, Helaine Perlman, has ruled more than once that he should be granted asylum and released on bond, but the DOJ keeps appealing, arguing he's far too dangerous to walk free, because deporting as many asylum seekers as possible is the goal, and after all, he admitted his gang ties, didn't he? Perlman seems incredibly frustrated by the system too, and noted in at least one hearing that the only reason Kevin was detained was because his sessions with counselors had been used against him.
"I had made a decision granting your request — but the government disagreed with it," she said. "They want me to make a new decision."
You might be thinking that the disclosure of immigrant kids' conversations with their therapists is a huge violation of HIPAA, the medical privacy law. But, as with everything in the Trump-Stephen Miller regime, there's a catch, and it's the best there is, as Dreier notes:
ORR acts in the role of legal guardian for children in its custody, as de facto parents, with the right to see children's records and share them as it sees fit.
So if ORR decides to share information with ICE and the DOJ and they decide to use therapists' notes for punitive purposes, that's perfectly legal. We see it clearly in all its spinning reasonableness. There's an elliptical precision about its perfect pairs of parts that is graceful and shocking, like good modern art.
Mind you, mental health professionals don't like how the administration is just throwing shit all over children and their counselors and calling it a masterpiece. It's been protested by multiple professional organizations, who all
say that while it may be legal to share these notes, it's not ethically defensible. "The idea of going to therapy is not trying to solicit confessions for other uses. Even if your patient is being accused of a crime, you don't just share your notes," said Lynn Bufka, a senior director for the American Psychological Association.
Some clinicians in shelters and detention facilities, like Trevino and Mayles, say they didn't know how the notes were used. (Mayles, who's left the DHS system, declined to look at the documents that repurposed his notes, saying "it would sicken me.") Others know, and try to keep things that might be misused out of patient files — and some seem in denial, and make promises of confidentiality they should know they can't keep.
This story is shockingly similar to another Dreier wrote when she worked for ProPublica. That one, part of a series that won her a Pulitzer in 2019, involved a teenager who escaped MS-13 in El Salvador, then helped authorities in the US arrest members of the gang in New York. An FBI agent told the boy he'd get immunity for his help, but it was never put in writing. After years of hearings, the kid was eventually deported to El Salvador, but thanks to the publicity the stories generated, a crowdfunding campaign got him to safety in Europe, where he's seeking asylum and the governments aren't entirely insane.
The effect of all this: the administration has been given a tool that is being used in immigration proceedings around the country. In California, a teenager who had been detained for 11 months confided to shelter staff that he wanted to die; in an asylum hearing, the confession was read aloud as evidence he was a danger to himself and should be deported. In Virginia, a 16-year-old told a shelter therapist that his brother was wanted for murder in El Salvador; the therapist reported that the 16-year-old himself was involved in a murder, and he was transferred that same day to secure detention. In Arizona, a 15-year-old told a therapist he had participated in 50 murders, a number he quickly took back and said had been a boast; nonetheless, he was moved to high-security detention and his asylum case remains under review.
The entire thing is infuriating, and it's enough to make a reader explode at the unfairness of it all, which means now I guess we're going to jail too. And someday, when this regime is gone, we're going to need a truth commission to investigate and document all its violations of human rights.
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.