19 states are suing over 'cruel, inhumane, and illegal' conditions for detained children

There is no doubt that the ongoing migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is a difficult problem to solve. How to handle a large influx of people arriving at our doorstep and how to expediently process increasing asylum claims is a big question with many unclear answers.

But there's one thing we should be crystal clear about. Inhumanity should have no place in our immigration policies, and cruelty toward children should never be tolerated, period. And yet, that's exactly what we are seeing in our detention facilities.


Nineteen U.S. states have filed a joint lawsuit alleging inhumane conditions in U.S. immigration detention centers, specifically when it comes to children. The lawsuit includes first-hand accounts from detainees ages 12 to 17 describing how they were held in crowded cells without enough room to lie down and no privacy to use the toilet. They said the facilities were kept at frigid temperatures, and when someone complained, guards lowered the temperature further. Those who were lucky enough to be given aluminum blankets had them taken away at 4 a.m., and some had only the bare, cold floor to sleep on. They said guards woke the children in the middle of the night for "roll calls," yelled or cursed at kids who cried, and took some kids away to stay in dark rooms by themselves overnight. They said the food they were given was sometimes still frozen or smelled or tasted "off."

RELATED: An immigration lawyer's viral post reminds us that every statistic is a human story.

Overcrowding is a problematic but understandable reality considering the large numbers of migrants we're seeing. However, there is no excuse for some of the actions and conditions these children described.

Turning the air conditioning up so high as to be torturous, and turning it up even higher when detainees complain? Not okay.

Taking away children's sweaters or other warm clothing and then forcing them to sleep on a bare floor in freezing cold conditions? Not okay.

(Considering how some Americans like to complain about wasting taxpayer money on immigrants, I'm surprised there's not more uproar about this. Air conditioning is expensive. It must be costing a fortune to keep detention facilities at ridiculously cold temps at the hot Mexico border. Why is that necessary?)

Keeping the lights on all night long and disrupting the little amounts of sleep these kids are getting? Not okay. (Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason.)

Not allowing a menstruating girl to shower for 10 days when there are showers available? Only allowing a menstruating girl one sanitary pad per day, even when she's bled through it, her underwear, and her clothing? Not okay.

Yelling and swearing at scared little kids for crying? Not okay.

Not providing enough food and water and then throwing food on the floor for children to fight over? So. Not. Okay.

How is it that we can afford to keep the lights on at all hours, but can't afford to provide kids with toothbrushes or soap or sanitary pads? How is it that we can keep the air conditioning blasting on high all day and night, but can't provide adequate water and decent food?

Check out some of the excerpts from the sworn statement of Alma Poletti, Investigation Supervisor for the Washington State Attorney General's Office, describing what the children reported.

The freezing conditions made worse when someone complained:

"Children described these facilities as rooms of different sizes with no windows to the outside and where lights were kept on 24-hours per day. Most of the children reported these detention facilities were freezing, kept at extremely cold temperatures. Children were only given 'aluminum' blankets to keep themselves warm. Some of them had sweaters or spare clothes with them when they arrived at the detention facility, but these were confiscated by the immigration officers (the children referred to them as 'officers' or 'guards') and they were never returned to them even if a child asked for warm clothes or additional blankets. One girl recalled instances when mothers who were detained with their children complained to the officers about the cold temperatures because their kids were getting sick. An officer would then grab the air-conditioner remote. After that, the room would get colder, as if the officer had been annoyed by the request and decided to lower the temperature even further."

Purposeful sleep deprivation:

Some of the children reported that guards would interrupt the little rest they had, waking them up in the middle of the night for roll call, or to put out food. Children reported feeling like there was no need for the guards to wake them up in the middle of the night and that officers were doing it on purpose to intentionally disrupt their sleep. One girl said guards would take away their 'aluminum' blankets every morning at 4 a.m. The blankets were the only thing they had to keep themselves warm in the freezing facility, so kids wanted to keep them, but would be yelled at by the guards when they asked if they could have the blankets back."

Children who cried being put into isolation in a dark room:

"If the children would not stop crying, a guard would open the door, ask the crying child to come to the door, and then threaten them. The 16-year old girl heard guards tell children that if they did not stop crying, they would be 'left in a corner' with no one to help them, or that they would be 'sent to a dark room.' Over the ten days this girl was detained, she saw three children taken away only to return the next day; when they got back they said they had been kept in a dark room alone. One six-year old boy was taken to the dark room because he accidentally clogged the toilet with toilet paper."

Guards yelling and swearing at a 7-year-old for crying:

"A different girl remembers that two guards started cursing at a seven-year old girl with horrible words that she refused to repeat to interviewers. The guards were yelling and swearing at the younger girl because she would not stop crying."

That's only a taste of what's in Poletti's testimony. The whole thing is worth a read.

No one expects immigration processes to be perfect, but we absolutely should expect our government to be humane. How we treat fellow human beings isn't about political ideologies, but about basic human decency. There is no excuse for mistreating children, especially those who are already scared and confused. There's no excuse for wasting electricity on excessive air conditioning and 24/7 lights while denying children access to basic hygiene. It's not necessary; it's cruel.

RELATED: After 246 days of separation, this woman and her daughter are finally reunited.

No matter what our stance is on immigration, no matter what we think needs to be done about it, we should all be able to agree that cruelty to children is not okay. We must maintain a basic level of humanity and have lines that we simply refuse to cross as we grapple with our immigration questions. Morally and ethically, subjecting children to this kind of treatment when we have the ability to choose otherwise is unconscionable.

Legally, it's also unacceptable—we've created laws and regulations to avoid keeping children in such conditions and to avoid detaining them for too long. Hence this lawsuit.

We cannot allow state-sanctioned cruelty to children—any children—to go unchecked in our name.


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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

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“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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