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New report cites mental health challenges faced by separated immigrant children


Care providers encountered significant challenges when addressing the mental health needs of unaccompanied immigrant children in federal custody, including overwhelming caseloads and the deteriorating mental health of some patients, according to a new report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG).

Dr. Craig L. Katz is a clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai in New York.

Dr. Craig L. Katz

In the report, released Sept. 3, the OIG outlined findings from its analysis of 45 Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities between August and September 2018. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services ORR is the legal custodian of unaccompanied immigrant children in its care who have no parent or legal guardian available. This includes children who arrive in the United States unaccompanied and children who are separated from their parents or guardians by immigration authorities after arriving in the country.

For the analysis, OIG investigators collected data from interviews with mental health clinicians, medical coordinators, facility leadership, and ORR federal field specialists at the 45 selected facilities.

Investigators recorded numerous serious challenges experienced by providers when attempting to provide mental health care to the children. Namely, they cited overwhelming patient caseloads, and difficulty accessing external mental health clinicians and referring children to providers within ORR’s network, according to the OIG’s report.

Mental health clinicians reported that the high caseloads hurt their ability to build rapport with young patients – and allowed less time for counseling and less frequent sessions for children with greater needs. The heavy caseloads were generated by heightened immigration enforcement beginning in 2017, and the separation of many more families at the border and more children being placed in federal custody, according to the report.

In addition, providers reported challenges when addressing the mental health needs of children who had experienced significant trauma before coming into federal custody. Intense trauma was common among children who entered care provider facilities, the report found. This included trauma that occurred while the children lived in the countries of origin, trauma during their journey to the United States, and trauma upon their arrival in the United States.

Separation from parents and a chaotic reunification process added to the trauma that children had already experienced, providers reported, and put extreme pressure on facility staff. Separated children exhibited “more fear, feelings of abandonment, and posttraumatic stress than did children who were not separated,” according to the findings. Separated children also experienced elevated feelings of anxiety and loss as a consequence of unexpected separation from loved ones.

Also, facilities reported that longer lengths of stay resulted in deteriorating mental health for some children and increased demands on staff. Facilities reported that children who stayed in federal custody for longer periods experienced more stress, anxiety, and behavioral issues. According to the facilities, the longer stays resulted in higher levels of defiance, hopelessness, and frustration among children – in addition to more instances of self-harm and suicidal ideation.


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