Children who won’t leave their parents’ side. Parents tormenting themselves every night for not having been able to stop their children being torn away by border patrol agents.
This is what’s left behind months after the Trump administration cancelled its family separation policy, which saw the US government separate more than 2,300 children from their parents at the US border with Mexico.
There are still 416 of those children who have not been reunited with their parents – and even the families who have been reunified are suffering from the traumatic experience. In an effort to address this trauma, lawyers have filed a federal lawsuit arguing the US government should provide mental health care to the affected families.
The complaint, filed in Massachusetts district court last week, accuses the US government of betraying the constitution and having “harmed the most vulnerable: children.”
It also calls on the US government to establish a fund for mental health treatment for the parents and children separated at the border and to pay damages to those harmed.
“The case is focusing on mental health because that is where the most devastating damage has been inflicted upon these children and it is an area where the law provides a remedy,” the lead attorney, Howard Cooper, told the Guardian.
Two families are plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, which seeks mental health care for all separated families.
“I do think it’s fair to say that it’s extraordinarily doubtful that the defendants would of their own accord take any steps to try and undo any harm they caused and the intention is that the court should impose that remedy,” Cooper said.
The plaintiffs, who fled Guatemala intending to seek asylum in the US, described in court documents their relief at meeting border agents – only to be put through further trauma in US custody.
One father, who was separated from his 11-year-old son for 36 days, said since their reunification, the child wakes up from nightmares that are so bad he sometimes falls out of bed.
They approached the border on 17 June having left Guatemala because organized crime members extorted the father and threatened to kill him and his family, according to the lawsuit.
While detained, the child named as CJ in legal documents, said he eventually believed he would never see his father again and would spend years in detention. “While the relief and joy they both felt at seeing each other again was overwhelming, the harm that Defendants caused to CJ during the time that he was separated from his father and in Defendants’ custody can never truly be remedied,” the lawsuit said.
The medical community warned the Trump administration that its policy could cause long-term harm to the families already traumatized by the circumstances that drove them from their homes and the difficult journey to the border.
The American Psychological Association CEO, Arthur Evans Jr, wrote to Trump in June to explain how family separations psychologically harm children. “As psychologists, we have documented multiple harmful effects of parent-child separation on children’s emotional and psychological development and well-being and urge that the current policy of family separation be reversed,” Evans said.
Evans also warned that policies like this could harm the mental health of immigrants who are already in the US.
The US justice department did not respond to requests for comment.
By the time Trump ended the policy with an executive order on 20 June, more than 2,300 children had been separated from their parents.
One of those families includes plaintiffs 17-year-old EO jr, his sister, nine-year-old KO and their mother, LJ.
The brother and sister were separated from their mother after walking five hours looking for a border agent. The children remained close, but were held in separate cells, put on separate airplane seats when being transported from the border to a children’s shelter and told not to speak to each other in the border detention facility, according to court documents.
Their mother, LJ, said her daughter follows her mother everywhere and is afraid they will be separated again. “The guilt that LJ feels as a mother is overwhelming,” the lawsuit said. “She feels as if she was unable to protect her children.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the first legal case against family separation in February, also proposed a measure to address mental health in its case seeking reunification for all families.
Though groups of people have sought damages from the US government before, Cooper said: “I am unaware of a case like this previously where there is a class of children seeking uniquely damages related to mental distress caused by the United States government.”
“Fortunately there is no sound of jackboots, there is no Hitler, (but maybe there are) small Mussolinis. That remains to be seen,” he told reporters in Paris, speaking in a jocular fashion.
Moscovici, a former French finance minister, mentioned no names, but Matteo Salvini, who is a deputy prime minister and heads Italy’s anti-immigrant League, took it personally.
“He should wash his mouth out before insulting Italy, the Italians and their legitimate government,” Salvini said in a statement released by his office in Rome.
Salvini took advantage of the spat to set out once again his grievances with France, which he accuses of not doing enough to help deal with migrants from Africa and of having plunged Libya into chaos by helping to oust former strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
“EU commissioner Moscovici, instead of censuring his France that rejects immigrants ... has bombed Libya and has broken European (budget) parameters, attacks Italy and talks about ‘many little Mussolini’ around Europe,” Salvini said.
In other comments at the Paris event, Moscovici said Italy needed to cut wasteful spending and prioritise investment and infrastructure spending that will help stimulate growth and productivity.
“It’s in Italy’s interest to reduce its very high public debt,” Moscovici said. “It would be a lie to think one can invest more with a higher deficit. If that happens, you end up with more debt and less capacity to invest.”
Italy is preparing its 2019 budget, a process that has heightened tensions within the governing coalition, which comprises Salvini’s League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
Yields on Italian bonds have risen sharply, reflecting investor concerns about the stability of Italy’s finances.
Moscovici said it was critical for Rome to come up with a workable budget. “The Italian budget needs to be credible, credible at a nominal level but also credible in terms of the structural reforms that are required,” he said. “There needs to be a significant effort on the structural side.”
Moscovici added that he was working closely with Italy’s finance minister in what he described as a “constructive climate” and said he hoped that would continue.