The long history of child detention

First lady Melania Trump and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar (left) listen during a roundtable meeting at the Lutheran Social Services of the South's Upbring New Hope Children's Center in McAllen on June 21, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

In a bid to quell the national outrage over the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, first lady Melania Trump recently visited the Upbring New Hope Children’s Center, a privately run detention facility in McAllen. Every network broadcast Mrs. Trump as she met with staff members who reassured her – and us – that the 55 migrant children under their care were well treated. Viewers heard staff members, who seemed caring and competent, describe their desire to provide something approximating a home environment and to reunite children with their families.

As numerous observers have noted, the visit was carefully choreographed for national consumption. The center served only unaccompanied minors, not those who had been taken from their parents, and only children above the age of 5. In other words, it was not at all typical of the facilities where over 2,000 migrant children are being held apart from their parents.

It seems clear that the Trump administration was caught thoroughly unprepared to implement its own “zero tolerance” policy. In the ensuing scramble to house children ranging in age from infants to adolescents, the administration has relied on hastily built tent cities, retrofitted WalMart stores and, most revealingly, existing facilities typically used to house juvenile offenders. The government reportedly has transported migrant children to facilities in at least fourteen states, many of them thousands of miles away from the southern border.

In Virginia, the governor has ordered an investigation into reports that migrant youth “were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells.” Closer to home, The Texas Tribune reports that the federal government is turning to privately run detention centers that state inspectors have charged repeatedly with “serious lapses in care, including neglect and sexual and physical abuse.” Overall, the Texas facilities have been cited with over 400 deficiencies, over one-third of which were considered serious.

Earlier this week, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges warned of the adverse effects of placing children in congregate care, a uniquely traumatizing experience for children who have been removed from their parents. Juvenile justice professionals have known for decades that such prison-like facilities provide poor treatment and encourage abuse and neglect. Decades of experience have shown that even when some of the adult staff mean well, the environment created in a mass custody setting for children mandates an emphasis on control and order rather than on care. This is why the U.S. long ago abandoned the use of orphanages.

The historical record of congregate facilities for children is littered with horrific tales of abuse and brutality. In Texas, a federal class-action lawsuit against such places in the 1970s revealed widespread physical abuse of youth, overuse of psychotropic drugs and solitary confinement, and inadequate medical care. As a result, the state closed down its most notorious facilities.

But youth prisons persisted, returning in the 1990s during a national panic over so-called “super predators.” One of those prisons, the West Texas State School in remote Pyote, became the epicenter of a sex abuse scandal in 2007. Once again, children’s advocates and some elected officials lamented the mistreatment of children and youth at the hands of the state, and sweeping changes were made, including the closure of several youth prisons.

These episodes offer us one critical lesson. Again and again, when faced with public scrutiny that may threaten their existence, youth prisons have presented carefully choreographed self-portraits to reassure the public that the children entrusted to their care were healthy and happy. In the early 1970s, Texas juvenile justice officials led reporters and state legislators on planned tours of facilities rife with horrific abuses. These exercises quickly proved to be elaborate performances. It was only when a federal court deposed children themselves and sent their own experts, as well as federal law-enforcement agents, into the facilities that the painful truth emerged.

The televised performance of beneficence offered to the first lady and the American public should arouse deep skepticism. It followed a well-worn script that is familiar to historians and child welfare professionals, and should not dampen the urgent need to release these children from government custody and reunite them with their families immediately. The longer these children remain in such places, the more likely it becomes that they will suffer even further trauma.

Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

William S. Bush

Associate professor, Texas A&M University-San Antonio

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