The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The American tradition of caging children

Immigrant children housed in a tent encampment under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy walk in a line in Tornillo, Tex., on June 19. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

As you no doubt know, the Trump administration this year separated thousands of children from their parents at the southern border and has been holding them in camps. It’s not the first time this country has caged children.

Here’s a little information about the horror going on at the border from this recent Washington Post story:

The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown at the border this spring was troubled from the outset by planning shortfalls, widespread communication failures and administrative indifference to the separation of small children from their parents, according to an unpublished report by the Department of Homeland Security’s internal watchdog.
The report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is the government’s first attempt to autopsy the chaos produced between May 5 and June 20, when President Trump abruptly halted the separations under mounting pressure from his party and members of his family.
The DHS Office of Inspector General’s review found at least 860 migrant children were left in Border Patrol holding cells longer than the 72-hour limit mandated by U.S. courts, with one minor confined for 12 days and another for 25.
Many of those children were put in chain-link holding pens in the Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas. The facilities were designed as short-term way stations, lacking beds and showers, while the children awaited transfer to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services.

And a recent New York Times story on life for children in some of these places says this:

Do not misbehave. Do not sit on the floor. Do not share your food. Do not use nicknames. Also, it is best not to cry. Doing so might hurt your case.
Lights out by 9 p.m. and lights on at dawn, after which make your bed according to the step-by-step instructions posted on the wall. Wash and mop the bathroom, scrubbing the sinks and toilets. Then it is time to form a line for the walk to breakfast. . . .
The facility’s list of no-no’s also included this: Do not touch another child, even if that child is your hermanito or hermanita — your little brother or sister.

It is worth noting that the United States has never had what you would call child-friendly policies.

Every year, U.S. News & World Report examines the policies of countries as they relate to the well-being of children, and it comes up with a list of the best places around the world to raise them. The media company bases its decisions on data about eight headers: care for human rights, family-friendly, gender equality, happiness, income equality, level of safety, well-developed public education system and well-developed health-care system.

Note which country is missing in the 2018 top-10 list of child-friendly countries: Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Canada, Netherlands, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Austria.

And in 2017, InterNations, the world’s largest network for people who live and work away from the country of their birth, did its own list of the best countries to raise children, asking thousands of people to rate 43 aspects of life. The United States was 26th on a list of 45 countries.

Here’s a look at the American tradition of caging children by Lalitha Vasudevan, a professor of technology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she is also director of the Media and Social Change Lab.

By Lalitha Vasudevan

The Trump administration’s policy of family separation reached a fever pitch this past summer, as video footage emerged of youths being herded into detention facilities and audio recordings of small children pleading to be reunited with family.

Even some who are ordinarily hardened by “bleeding heart” pleas for humane treatment of young people were chilled by the sights and sounds of children so clearly frightened as they interacted with strangers under the surveillance of armed Border Patrol officers. While the goings-on of detention facilities have long remained hidden from public view, modern journalism — with the ability to gather and circulate multimedia documentation swiftly, to wide audiences — has allowed glimpses, albeit limited, of the conditions detained children are experiencing.

According to a recent report by the New York Times, more than 12,000 migrant children are being held in “federally contracted shelters,” and in some of these facilities, there are no adults present who speak a child’s language.

Workers in these facilities who supervise children and youth are not properly trained to do so. Psychological and physical mistreatment being described in the detention centers and makeshift tent shelters, such as restricting siblings from embracing and forced labor, impairs children’s capacity for forming attachments and engaging in trusting relationships. Both of these are necessary for healthy educational experiences and general well-being, the absence of which will likely be viewed and treated as infractions worthy of further detention later in life.

As jarring as these stories and images are, this phenomenon is not new in the United States. Sights and sounds of children — including understandably hysterical and confused toddlers — in cages, under constant surveillance and policing, and government officials’ bald disregard for the law and human life, ought to be viewed as a historical, and still very much alive, aspect of our country’s character. They are painful reminders of what ordinary men and women can be convinced to do when the lives they are charged with controlling are made to matter less.

The Child Savers movement in the late 19th century led to the creation of the first juvenile court in Cook County, Ill., in 1899. Initially conceived as a less harsh and more humane approach to addressing the transgressions of youth in an environment separate from adults, the juvenile court’s mission of rehabilitation quickly took on a more punitive emphasis. The movement came into prominence after the legal abolishment of slavery and leaders sought to control the growing influx of new immigrants to the United States at the time.

And thus, the containment of children and youth in cages as a mode of social control was institutionalized.

In the mid-1990s, the use of the term “superpredator” by policy pundits and a handful of social science researchers launched a moral panic that led to harsher sentencing for drug possession, higher numbers of adolescents being tried as adults in criminal court, and the widespread adoption of “zero tolerance” policies that were used in schools to suspend youth for behaviors previously addressed within schools.

Since the late 1990s, the number of youths detained in local and state facilities has decreased by more than half, yet, on any given day, approximately 50,000 youths are still detained in facilities away from their homes. This includes more than 5,000 youths who are housed in adult jails or prisons and 89 percent of all youth detained in locked facilities that increasingly resemble carceral conditions, including the use of physical restraints and extended periods of isolation.

It cannot be stated enough that across these statistics, racial disparities persist in the rates of arrest and incarceration, with black youths consistently being held or detained at five times the rate of white youth, according to the Sentencing Project.

Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies establish a troubling symbiosis between schools and detention facilities by easing the escalation of misinterpretations of normal childhood behavior into criminal activity that must be controlled.

For example, status offenses, such as truancy and curfew violation, are behaviors that would not be a crime if practiced by adults, yet an average of 20 percent of all juvenile arrests stem from this type of infractions. The right of a childhood is no longer available to young people whose very beings are circumscribed by laws and policies written to contain and punish them.

In his book about victims of gun violence, “Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives,” journalist Gary Younge cautions against “the elevation and canonization of the ‘worthy victim.' ”

Once we define some victims as worthy of victimization, what inevitably follows is either a designation of unworthy victims or traits that would make a victim of gun violence (or, for example, detention at the border or incarceration stemming from misbehavior) unworthy of attention, awareness, or actions to correct laws and policies that lead to their victimization.

What troubles many of us now is that we are witnessing once-worthy victims — children, overflowing with innocence and possibility — being cast as unworthy victims by virtue of where they were born and the false labeling of their actions as criminal, when what they did was cross a border, sometimes without parents, in an effort to flee harmful circumstances or improve their life chances.

While some Americans have been angered and terrified by the government’s actions at the border, and some have been moved to act to help the children, we have yet to see an enriched national conversation about how we punish children and how we decide what children are worthy of our empathy.

Laws can be changed, and with them, the practices they sanction. In New York, for example, legislators decisively voted in favor of passing the Raise the Age Bill, which raises the age of adult criminal responsibility to 18 years old.

This change, which took effect on Oct. 1, redirects nonviolent offenses to the Family Court, where judges have more discretion to recommend diversion and nonresidential programs focused on support rather than punishment. This change is a small start to restoring the right of childhood to many young people from whom it was stolen long before they were even out of infancy.

Let the collective outrage extend into the ongoing conversation about criminal justice reform, another area that is vulnerable to draconian actions in the name of so-called positive change. The shelters in which the 12,000 migrant children are being held currently charge $750 per day per child. Consider how else those funds could be allocated to support the flourishing, rather than detention, of young people.

And citizens, of course, can act on their beliefs at the ballot box.