The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reports have spread that shelter workers can’t comfort migrant children. Rules aren’t that simple.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is waging a publicity campaign against the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" crackdown on immigrant families. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

At a shelter for migrant children near the Texas-Mexico border, Colleen Kraft of the American Academy of Pediatrics said she watched a 2-year-old girl scream and pound her fists on a mat after she had been separated from her mother. A shelter worker wanted to console her, but the rule was to not touch or hold the children, Kraft said staff members told her.

At another shelter in Arizona, three Brazilian siblings, distraught after they had been separated from their parents, were told they’re not allowed to hug one another, according to Antar Davidson, who recently quit his job at that facility.

These anecdotes, perhaps some of the most gut-wrenching stories following the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant families that cross into the United States illegally, raise questions about whether such shelters are able to properly care for recently traumatized children, and if rules meant to guard against inappropriate relationships and sexual abuse of adolescent migrants have been broadly applied even to distraught toddlers in need of affection or scared siblings who wanted to hold on to one another.

“All of these kinds of rules are designed to deal with a problem, a real problem,” said James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. “But what I think is happening here, although we can all recognize that inappropriate touch is a problem, is that people are not sufficiently recognizing that no touch is also a problem.”

‘America is better than this’: What a doctor saw in a Texas shelter for migrant children

The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs shelters for migrant children through its Office of Refugee Resettlement, disputed allegations that child-care workers were instructed not to “have physical contact” with young children “consistent with their physical and emotional needs.” Shelter workers give “appropriate care,” the agency said, and that includes “picking up small children within proper boundaries.”

What it looks like inside the facilities housing children separated at the border

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility near the border crossing in Tornillo, Tex., houses underage people caught illegally entering the United States. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Southwest Key, an Austin-based nonprofit organization that Davidson worked for, also disputed Davidson’s allegations. A spokeswoman for the organization, which is contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to run shelters for migrant children, did not return a call seeking comment, but she told the Los Angeles Times that staff members have “great expertise” in dealing with young children.

The Department of Health and Human Services also said that shelters must follow state licensing rules. Clinicians must be licensed and have a master’s degree in social work or behavioral science and three years of child-care experience.

But despite education and training requirements, some say shelters are dealing with something they had not seen before: a huge influx of what government officials call “tender-age children,” or those younger than 5. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that some of these children are babies.

Former officials with the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Obama administration said the vast majority of migrant children housed at these shelters, at least as far back as 2012, had been adolescents, or unaccompanied minors who showed up at borders. Robert Carey, who ran the office in the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, suspects that as these shelters see more and more young children, some staff members have assumed that the same rules about physical contact apply.

“There were very few tender-age children at ORR when I was there. It rarely happened,” Carey said. “The care was focused on children who, for the most part, were 15 to 17 years old.”

In Trump’s efficient U.S. family separation system, reunions take far longer

“I would think a lot of the policy doesn’t anticipate care for small, tender-age children,” he added. “The needs of small children or toddlers are very, very different.”

Carey said there are policies meant to prevent inappropriate physical contact between teenage migrants, or between caregivers and adolescents. Incidents that involve “inappropriate touching” and kids pushing one another have to be reported, he said.

In Texas, for example, employees at several shelters owned by Southwest Key had been reported to state licensing officials for not keeping appropriate boundaries with children in their care. Incidents reported within the past two years show the types of behaviors that state regulators saw as crossing those lines.

In one incident at a Southwest Key facility in Harlingen, Tex., one staff member was reported for not demonstrating “prudent judgment or self-control” by allowing “a child to caress them,” according to a state database of licensed child-care providers. At a facility in a Houston suburb, a staff member was reported after a child was found with a piece of paper with the staff member’s phone number. A somewhat similar incident happened at a shelter in Brownsville, Tex., where an employee was reported for showing favoritism by giving his personal information to a child. The state’s database gives very limited information on the incidents and does not state the ages of the children involved.

Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio immigration lawyer who frequently represents migrant children and families, said a friend who worked at a similar shelter in Oklahoma recently told her that policies on keeping a physical distance between employees and children “were very strictly enforced.”

Echoing Carey, Brandmiller said these practice was implemented when shelters are mostly dealing with teenage migrants. At the very least, she said there needs to be more specific directive to shelters on how to deal with very young children.

The facts about Trump’s policy of separating families at the border

“To be fair, there are going to be bad actors in any area, up to and including state placements of children as well as federal placements of children,” she said. “The challenge is how the systems are set up to both police that issue and identify ways in advance to protect the children. That’s not what’s happening in this current setting.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) on Wednesday wrote a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in response to reports that staff members at at least one facility were under the impression that they’re not allowed to hold or physically comfort distraught children. The letter includes a list of questions about mental evaluations of migrant children, what policies are in place regarding comforting children and how these rules are disseminated to all facilities.

More than 2,300 children were taken from their parents at the border between May 5 and June 9, according to numbers released Monday by the Department of Homeland Security. The separations have risen in large part because of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting adults who cross the border illegally, including those who came with their children. As parents are detained in federal jails, their children are taken to shelters.

Carey said the function of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under President Trump has shifted from reuniting migrant families to separating them. It’s a “sea change,” he said, that creates “professional, moral and ethical conflict” for the office and the organizations it works with.

Coan, the psychology professor, said simple steps can offset the trauma of young children who have just been separated from their parents.

“Supportive touch, soothing voice, an attempt to be kind, these are all expense-free,” he said. “These are not costly measures, and these measures are the most effective.”

“Obviously,” he added, “the best supportive touch is coming from someone you know and love.”

Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

Read more:

Trump defiant as crisis grows over family separation at the border

Trump is defiant as border crisis escalates, prepares to lobby House GOP on immigration bills

Md., Va. governors pull Guard troops from border to protest separations