America’s Youngest Prisoners: Inhumanity of Family Detention

**As the US government flip-flops on its “zero-tolerance” Biblical mandated immigration policy that isn’t a policy but enforcement of the law, this repost, from this February, describes some of state-sanctioned child abuse and human rights violations experienced those seeking safety in “the land of the free and home of the brave.” You can read more information and some of the latest reports: here, here, here, including former first lady Laura Bush, and this video of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The United States has long been lauded as the land of the free. As Americans, we have a tendency to consider our country to be an almost utopian land, far removed from the bleak landscapes and brutal violence of foreign countries that appear on the news. However, this ethnocentric attitude blinds us to the human rights abuses that happen frequently within our borders. Family detention centers are one such environment where human rights are regularly violated. The United States has three remaining family detention centers, referred to as “baby jails” by dissidents. Family detention has dwindled over the years due to protest, but our government currently detains close to 3,000 non-criminal immigrant mothers and children in horrifying conditions.

A couple sits next to a large wall with graffiti saying "Freedom," and "Take down this wall!"
Yarl’s Wood Protest. Source: iDJ Photography, Creative Commons.

“We are not delinquents who should be imprisoned.” – Eleven-year-old girl on her detention at Berks County Residential Center

Of the three family detention centers that remain open, the South Texas Family Residential Center (Dilley, Texas) is by far the largest. The other two centers, Karnes County Detention Center (Karnes City, Texas) and Berks County Detention Center (Leesport, Pennsylvania), hold less than 700 detainees combined. Dilley, as it is known, has a capacity for 2,400 inmates and, as of 2015, holds over 1,000 children and around 750 mothers. The fifty acres of land that comprise the Dilley center are dotted with small, two-bedroom, one-bathroom cottages with no kitchen, no telephones, and hold up to eight people per house. Nights in all centers are punctuated with officials checking in by shining flashlights on the sleeping families every fifteen minutes, reportedly causing insomnia and anxiety for the children. Medical care is essentially non-existent, as individuals report that the available doctors often only advise mothers to give their children water for any sickness they might have instead of prescribing medicine. On-site doctors have prescribed water instead of medical care for broken fingers, conjunctivitis, and even for a child who vomited blood, according to detainee’s reports.

A young child in a pink dress has her fingers held by a white-sleeved hand for an examination.
The Touch of Hands. Source: Alex Priomos, Creative Commons.

 “Simply, they don’t care. What is more important for them is control. These are delicate situations when someone is sick and vulnerable. They just care about control. I thought I came to this country to escape abuse, mistreatment and disrespect. But it’s the same here.” – a detainee at the South Texas Family Residential Center

The conditions at these centers are incredibly dangerous for children and mothers. Many mothers at the center have already faced sexual assault, brutal violence, or threats of murder against them and their family. This would normally grant these families asylum status, which is a status granted to people who are unable to return to their home country for fear of persecution. Asylum status is granted partially on the basis of past abuse or violence enacted on a person by a foreign government, but trauma survivors often struggle sharing details that would ensure asylum. Most asylum hearings do not have childcare available, so mothers must choose between either sharing explicit traumas in front of their children in order to be granted asylum or minimizing their struggle to protect their children but be denied asylum. The conditions of the centers themselves also are fraught with abuse. An increase in violence in Central America has led to an influx of migrants from unstable countries; most of the detainees at detention centers are of Central or South American origin and predominantly speak Spanish. However, few staff members are fluent in Spanish and the subsequent miscommunication lead to abuse. The women are rarely allowed to speak on the phone, and it is next to impossible to obtain legal advice privately within the centers. This denies women the ability to detail abuses of the center without fear of retribution by the staff. Detainees have been raped and assaulted by guards without adequate punishment; in 2016, a guard was sentenced to less than two years in prison after being found guilty of institutionally raping a nineteen-year-old Honduran woman.

Additionally, the children are deeply at risk for developmental regression and major psychological trauma. According to a report by the child advocacy group First Focus, over half of all children in family detention centers are under the age of six. Children under six are undergoing crucial stages in their development, and can easily be traumatized for the rest of their lives if exposed to the stress of detention centers. Children who have been detained are shown to have increased psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-harming, and suicidal thoughts or actions. Even short durations of being detained can have the same impact of week-long detention on children. Mothers have frequently reported their children losing unhealthy amounts of weight quickly, but doctors reportedly overlook the weight loss by claiming that the children are simply not used to the food or even claiming that they are bulimic. Children have been forced to sleep in rooms with non-related adults, creating a vulnerable situation that puts children at risk for sexual assault. At a now-closed center, kids as young as eighteen months were made to wear prison jumpsuits and expected to sleep in locked rooms with open-air toilets. Though the detention center where this occurred was shut down several years ago, similar abuses that display a blatant disregard for immigrant’s human rights have occurred in all family detention centers.

A crowd of people appear to be yelling as they hold signs that say "Close Karnes."
“Karnes Petition Delivery.” Source: WeAreUltraViolet, Creative Commons.

The overwhelming issue is that there is no legislation that ensures appropriate standards for immigrant detention. Management is left to the private companies who own the centers, and the desire for profit often overwhelms the adherence to ethical treatment. GEO Group, the company who runs Karnes, received $161 million in taxpayer dollars in 2015 from their contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Dilley, run by CoreCivic, generates 14% of the company’s income each year, despite owning seventy-four other prison centers– CoreCivic took away $71.6 million dollars from Dilley alone. These detention centers generate huge profits, which encourages the prison owners to fill beds with more detained immigrants. Last year, legislation was introduced in Texas to allow family detention centers to obtain child care facility licensing without meeting the minimum standards that other child care facilities must meet. Eventually, the bill was not passed and licensing was revoked from the Karnes center. However, the center continues to detain children. This is in direct violation of the Flores Agreement, which states that detained children must be kept in the least restrictive environment possible, requires child care licensing, and states that detainment for over three weeks is unlawful. Inaction from the government enables these centers to continue substandard practices that have harmed and will continue to harm children.

"Kids Out of Detention Centers" is stamped onto concrete in black ink with barbed wires surrounding the text.
Keep Kids Out of Detention Centers. Source: Stephen Mitchell, Creative Commons.

The government justifies the practice of detainment through “aggressive deterrence strategy,” which is meant to dissuade more migrants from attempting to gain entry to the United States. This strategy is not effective; the mass violence that many immigrants flee from is far deadlier than the misery of detainment, though both are damaging to families. Women with children are the least mobile group among communities in conflict, and often only flee in the face of real danger. Essentially, families who have fled violence must go somewhere, and the United States is both geographically convenient and generally safe. To deny families refuge is cruel enough, but to create more misery, vulnerability and trauma through inhumane detainment should be an unacceptable practice. We cannot deny that the United States is violating the human rights of thousands of children and mothers. Children in detention centers have a right to education, a right to an adequate standard of health, and the right to freedom from torture, along with all other human rights as defined by the UDHR. Educational needs have not been met by any standard, available healthcare is abominable, and much of the circumstances for detained children could be defined as torture or degrading treatment. Beyond this, the practice of family detention alone is a violation of the human rights of many detained children, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child states:

“No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

Smiling children hold signs that say "keep families together."
Untitled. Source: Peoples World, Creative Commons.

The conditions in which these vulnerable groups have been forced into are inhumane and dangerous. The detainment of children at U.S. centers rarely conform to the law adequately and detainment periods are often months long. Family detention is punitive by nature, yet none of the detained mothers or children in family detention centers are detained on the basis of crime. Data collected by the Detention Watch Network shows that the majority of families in the centers qualify for asylum status and therefore deserve to be freed, but institutional obstacles prevented the obtainment of that status. Families in detainment simply seek safety and protection from violent conflict in their home country. The mother who make the decision to uproot their homes in search of a better life have not committed a crime, and neither have the children who accompany them. The United States is actively harming a blameless population who has already been subject to trauma and abuse. This problem is not confined to the United States; family detainment occurs around the world in varying degrees of injustice from Australia to Israel. It is essential to call attention to this issue in order to preserve the human rights of children internationally. The global community must condemn the actions of any government that engages in the inhumane practice family detention.

Orphan Fever: The Dark Side of International Adoption 

Adopting a child from a country foreign different from your own is a complicated and controversial practice. If done correctly, you have saved a parentless child from a life of probable poverty and despair. If done incorrectly, you have either aided organizations who coerce parents into giving their children up or even facilitated child abuse, if the individual institution is unethically managed. Even if the adoption is conducted using appropriate channels and oversight, the adopting families are not always well intentioned.

International adoption peaked in 2004 and has been declining ever since, in part because of increasing restrictions fueled by incidents of violence. The problems that surround international adoption are complex and deeply intertwined with a variety of factors. Race, gender, religion, culture, sexuality, and global inequality together form the sticky, problematic web of international adoption.

Two children stand in a circular entrance to a tunnel holding hands.
“Tomorrow and the Next Day and the Day After That.” Source: Thomas Hawk, Creative Commons. 

“Orphan Fever”

At the peak of international adoption in the United States nearly fifteen years ago, much of the hype was driven by religious organizations. Adoption became a primary social welfare issue in the early 2000s after American Evangelicals began to champion the issue. This is not to be taken as an explicitly negative phenomenon; some religious organizations are instrumental in protecting human rights violations for international orphans. Many individuals who adopted in the name of their religion have vibrant, happily integrated families. However, religiosity does provides a cover of moral legitimacy that often discourages scrutiny of organizations or individuals.

Adoption agencies are not legally required to be accredited, and many faith-based agencies are not. Only 303 organizations are accredited per international standards of the roughly 3,000 agencies that perform adoption services in the United States. Central to this issue is the white-savior industrial complex, a term coined by notable author and activist Teju Cole. Cole explains that white people (often Americans) tend to view less developed regions but most specifically Africa as “a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism.” Families sometimes adopt international children with perverse motivations of piety and applause. Children are stripped of their culture and forced to adapt to Western norms overnight, and face dire consequences when they cannot conform. Individuals have relayed being severely disciplined for hesitating to eat unfamiliar foods, not adapting to American norms for eye contact quickly enough, and for speaking their own languages. This is a direct violation of the human right to culture. Internationally adopted children have the right to fully experience their birth culture for the sake of human dignity and the preservation of that child’s identity.

Adoption Facts and Flaws

The majority of international adoptees (71%) in the United States from the last twenty years have come from one of five countries: China, Russia, Guatemala, South Korea, or Ethiopia. All five of these countries have increased restrictions on foreign adoption, accounting for 88% of the decline since 2004 (Source: Pew Research Center). The restrictions come on the heels of majorly publicized cases of abuse and/or deaths of international adoptees.

Abuse and deaths in intercountry adoptive families are common. Numerous appalling incidents involving the misfortune of adopted children have circulated in the media in the past few years. International adoption is a tricky subject. Exploitation can occur on a number of levels, as the adoption process includes a variety of actors. The adopting families, the adoption agency, and the source institution can all be separately complicit in unethical behavior. To amplify corruption, there is little to no legislation to identify or prosecute exploitation on any level. “Sending countries” or the countries which children are most frequently adopted from, have had to become increasingly strict on foreign adoption policies. This is one of the most critical issues – the sending countries, who are most often relatively disadvantaged compared to receiving countries, carry the burden to make major policy reform in order to protect their children from exploitation. International policy on intercountry adoption is scarce, vague, and often unenforced.

Policy Issues

While the international adoption system contains many flaws, the most identifiable fundamental issue is lack of oversight and policy. Adoptions are most often conducted through private, individual agencies who each have different standards of what the adoption process should look like. These private agencies operate without much restriction placed on their activity. It seems unacceptable to permit adoption to occur through non-accredited agencies, yet that is the current norm. Lack of accreditation creates a wider pathway for unethical behavior. The market for adopting children is huge and incredibly lucrative, as it is full of wealthy potential adoptive families. The desperation for many families to find and adopt a child can often generate more demand than the current supply of available children can sustain; this eventually leads to gaps in supply being filled by non-orphaned children who were either stolen, coerced through misinformation, or otherwise manipulated into leaving their families.

Three boys stare up at the camera, smiling.
“Curious Children at an Orphanage, Mumbai.” Source: Tobias Leeger, Creative Commons.

Internationally-Adopted Victims of Child Abuse

One of the most recent and infamous cases was that of Sherin Mathews, a three year old girl from India who had developmental disabilities. Sherin died in October of last year from allegedly choking on milk that she was being forced to drink, though her adoptive father has made various claims about the circumstances of her death. The three year old was missing for a period of time but was found in a culvert. The international community was in an uproar after this crime came to light, and India quickly adopted legislation to reduce foreign adoption.

Ethiopia made similar measures last month following similar stories of abuse, though this act still surprised many, as the country has been well known for their high frequency of international adoption. Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams died at age thirteen from exposure after being forced to stay outside for hours as punishment. Hana was adopted by Carri and Larry Williams in 2008, but was quickly subjected to torturous conditions after Carri became dissatisfied with Hana’s maturity. Carri reportedly said, “I expected to adopt a little girl, not a half-grown woman,” as Hana began to menstruate shortly after arriving in the United States. The Williamses forced Hana to stay in a closet for upwards of ten hours at a time and required Hana to use an outdoor portable toilet, while the Williamses’ biological children were never subject to such misery. The night that Hana died, the entire Williams family spectavted and allegedly laughed as she staggered around naked for several hours in the cold, rainy backyard.

Two victims who survived their abuse are Guatemalan adoptee Carolina and Russian-born Leonid, who together endured years of physical and psychological torture from Kathleen and Martin O’Brian. The O’Brians were originally charged in 2012 of abusing their adopted children, including allegations of “locking them in a room with no bathroom, forcing them to kneel naked on sharp rocks and stand in a feces covered dog pen, and withholding food from them.” Both Carolina and Leonid have been happily adopted by different families after both Kathleen and Martin were found guilty, but will likely always retain the emotional and physical scars from the hellish O’Brian family. Russia banned foreign adoption the same year that the O’Brians were charged, as nineteen Russian children have died at the hands of foreign adoptive parents in the past twenty years. Stories of child abuse inflicted upon international adoptees are depressingly frequent. It is imperative to identify which flaws in the system are to blame for these horrible crimes, and how change can be enacted to prevent future suffering.

A man, face turned away from the camera, holds a sleeping baby.
“Air Force family adopts child from Ukraine.” Source: Dvidshub, Creative Commons.

Re-Homing

Despite the seemingly endless desperation to adopt, it is surprisingly easy to exchange children online with no legal intervention or monetary exchange. Re-homing communities exist in niches of the Internet, where families with adopted children post advertisements to give their “troublesome” children away. Reuters gave a detailed investigation of this practice in 2013, recounting several personal narratives of individuals who have either taken part in rehoming children, been re-homed themselves, or otherwise interacted with the re-homing community. Laws vary by state and have become more common since Reuter’s report incited brief public interest, but many states still only require the signature of a legal guardian to transfer custody to another adult. The exchange can occur privately without notifying any government officials, which creates a dangerous avenue for predators to easily obtain vulnerable children from desperate parents. Within Reuter’s report, multiple detailed accounts were given of children who were re-homed with individuals with documented pasts of abusing children physically, sexually, and emotionally. This occurred because the original adoptive parents did not thoroughly vet the family who was taking their child, a common experience among re-homing communities. One mother stated of her twelve year old adopted daughter, “I would have given her away to a serial killer, I was so desperate.”

Re-homing perseveres despite ethical quandaries due to the imminent need for post-adoption support for adoptive parents. Most agencies provide little to no support after the adoption process has been finalized, despite the difficulties that many families have in acclimating to the change. Reuters found that 70% of the children being re-homed were of international origin, and many of those children had behavioral problems indicative of some form of trauma or disability.

Several young orphans in matching uniforms stand in a grassy area, holding some types of tools.
“Orphanage.” Source: Clay Junell, Creative Commons.

The Path Ahead: Hope and Reform

The dark side of international adoption is one shrouded in mystery and corruption. Vulnerable children all over the world are being victimized on all levels within the process of adoption. Abuse can occur at the hands of adoptive parents, in re-homing families, by private non-accredited agencies, and within local orphanages. Considering that these children are already incredibly vulnerable (as many are already impacted by compound discrimination of race, disability, and class), this systematic abuse is particularly heinous. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child fully secures and protects all human rights of children, and specifically requires that “the system of adoption shall ensure that the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.” Shockingly, the United States is the only UN member nation who has not yet ratified the CRC. This is a blatant failure to protect the most vulnerable members of our population. America cannot remain complicit in such an exploitative system; it is truly reprehensible that our country is so heavily engaged in the adoption of vulnerable foreign children yet refuses to protect them. This is a failure for the global community as well — international community has accepted a flawed adoption system for far too long. Both domestic and international policy reform are essential to preserving and promoting the human rights and dignity of children.