Immigrant Teens Not Yet Being Waterboarded, So Why All The Fuss?

In Part Nine Million of our series "the cruelty is the point" (credit Adam Serwer), we bring you this story from Mother Jones about the treatment of migrant kids at a juvenile detention center in Virginia, one of just two juvie lockups where the government stores "unaccompanied minors who are deemed threatening." The story, by Samantha Michaels, traces the ongoing legal case against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, which started with a lawsuit in 2017 accusing the facility of using harsh disciplinary methods against migrant teens who haven't committed any crimes but are locked up because of their immigration status. (Not that harsh discipline is healthy for any kids in lockup, regardless of their rap sheets!) This week, the case is getting new attention because a crowd of nationally recognized prosecutors and even a few state attorneys general have filed an amicus brief as the case moves forward on appeal. We'll get to those details in a moment.

The suit argued that instead of getting the kids necessary mental health care for PTSD and other disorders stemming from their experiences as migrants, staff at the facility instead subjected them to punishments like being routinely tied to chairs for misbehavior, sometimes with a bag over their heads so they could get the full Gitmo Jr. experience.

One teen, who said he'd been tied up at least five times for infractions, said staff hit him while he was tied up with his head in a bag so he wouldn't bite or spit. "It had small holes that I could see out of, but only a little," he said. Another boy was left in a puddle of urine after he peed in his pants. A third kid described the experience of being tied and bagged as like being suffocated. "When you're in crisis, the bag is the least helpful thing—it's scary," he said. He noted he'd been diagnosed with PTSD before being sent to Shenandoah, but the staff wasn't about to listen to his whining about "mental illness."

In addition to giving kids the chair, the staff sometimes emphasized "solitary confinement" by confining them to their rooms and taking their clothes away, leaving them either in their underwear or naked.

The plaintiff, a teen from Honduras who I'll call Carlos, told the court about lying face-down on the floor in nothing but his boxers as punishment; repeatedly landing in room confinement for saying angry words and threatening staff members; and taking blows from staffers who hit him for misbehaving. The suit argues these experiences led to further trauma and exacerbated his mental illnesses.

Ah, but the kids had definitely been out of line, getting locked down in solitary for such egregious offenses as "not participating in class, complaining about a headache, or accidentally hitting the ceiling with the ball while playing soccer." Such hardcore criminality is also observed among alleged members of MS-13, especially teens who voluntarily turned state's evidence against the gang. It starts with soccer, and ends with terrorism.

Or maybe the kids -- who, again, aren't being held on criminal charges but are being detained while their immigration cases are considered -- need help, not The Hole:

Advocates for immigrant kids argue that aggression or bad behaviors exhibited at shelters generally stem from untreated mental illness, often resulting from trauma they experienced in their home countries or while fleeing. Some of the children interviewed as part of the lawsuit reported previous abuse by family members or strangers, witnessing murders of friends and relatives, being exploited for their labor, and enduring assaults.

Some immigrants started engaging in self-harm at the facility; Antonio said he became suicidal, cut his wrists with a piece of glass or plastic, and banged his head against the floor because he was sad. Another boy said that
after he slammed his fist into a door, staffers handcuffed him and strapped him into the chair as he cried. "Staff said that they did it to calm me down," he said in court filings. Carlos said he repeatedly asked to talk with a psychologist about his angry feelings, but was only allowed to once.

Ah, but there are Two Sides! Lawyers for the state insist Carlos never requested counseling, that he'd been referred to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication, and that he actually was seeing a counselor weekly. They also denied the center punishes anyone for self-harming behavior or complaints about treatment. Restraints and lockdowns are only used to prevent kids from harming themselves or others.

The judge in the case ruled in December 2018 that while the lawsuit could go forward on the grounds that the kids were mistreated, the plaintiffs would have to drop the claim that they deserved mental heath treatment instead. How's this for an explanation? US District Judge Elizabeth Dillon wrote that actually helping traumatized immigrant teens is beyond the court's purview:

Not surprisingly, plaintiffs desire and advocate for a best practices approach, but the law does not require best practices [...] Rather it requires constitutional practices, and that is the issue before the court.

We can see that there's a distinction between "what's best" and "what's the minimum we can legally get away with." But we're talking about kids here, and that's key to the new appeal strategy. The amicus brief, signed by progressive prosecutors like Baltimore's Larry Krasner, Kim Foxx of Cook County, Illinois, and San Francisco's Chesa Boudin, argues that withholding mental health treatment from children IS a constitutional issue, goddammit:

"The court's decision," they wrote, failed to consider that the immigrant teens "are children, and have not been adjudicated delinquent or convicted of any offense. The purpose of their detention is…to protect them from harm, not to punish them." [...]

[The brief also argues] "the conditions in which children are detained must account for, and not exacerbate, their trauma." It is undisputed, they wrote, that many immigrant teens arrived at the Virginia juvenile hall with depression, conduct disorders, anxiety disorders, and PTSD, and that some engaged in self-harm there. "Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center has egregiously and repeatedly departed from accepted professional norms—including failing to provide adequate mental health treatment to children in its care with known mental health issues and using punitive measures including lengthy solitary confinement[.]

The disciplinary practices only make the kids' problems worse, exacerbating or leading to panic attacks, suicidal ideation, psychotic symptoms, and the like.

One bit of good-ish news. A juvenile detention facility in California has announced that starting next month, it will no longer toy with the machinery of locking up migrant kids for the government. The downside is that that leaves Shenandoah as the only shelter warehousing troubled migrant kids.

Still, look on the bright side! These particular kids aren't being sent off to that Texas facility where migrant kids were given psychiatric meds without their parents' permission or even notification. What lucky duckies!

Now, about the use of restraints and solitary confinement on any kids at all ...

[Mother Jones / Center for Investigative Reporting / ProPublica / Prison Policy Initiative]

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Doktor Zoom

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.


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