On Monday, when ProPublica released the now-infamous seven-and-a-half minutes of audiotape recorded inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility, in which several wailing kids can be heard crying out for their moms and dads, Darcia Narvaez clicked the link and told herself she’d do her best to listen to the whole thing.
Within seconds, however, Narvaez, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame who specializes in parenting and child development, had hit the mute button. “I mostly read the captions,” says Narvaez. She can’t stand hearing children cry for prolonged periods of time without being comforted, she says, “because I know their brains are being damaged.”
Ever since the Trump administration’s recent statement that it had separated nearly 2,000 children from parents facing charges of illegally crossing the border—a number since raised to more than 2,300—troubling reports from inside the shelters where those children have been detained have proliferated. Many describe conditions in which, whether by official policy or not, shelter staff are prohibited or prevented from hugging or touching the detained kids—hundreds of whom are younger than 13 years old—to comfort them. Some testimonies, like the one from a former Tucson, Arizona, shelter worker, Antar Davidson (who quit last week because the shelter “didn’t have the trained staffing to handle the influx of younger, more traumatized children”), allege that even siblings in the shelters are prevented from hugging one another:
The breaking point for Davidson came, he says, when he was asked to tell two siblings, ages 6 and 10, that they couldn’t hug each other. “They called me over the radio. And they wanted to translate to these kids that the rule of the shelter is that they are not allowed to hug,” he says. “And these are kids that had just been separated from their mom—basically just huddling and hugging each other in a desperate attempt to remain together.”
Southwest Key, the nonprofit that operates several shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the one where Davidson worked, told NPR that it has a policy of allowing hugs and comforting touches in certain circumstances. A South Texas shelter, meanwhile, told the American Academy of Pediatrics president, Colleen Kraft, when she visited (according to the same NPR story) that there was no federal regulation prohibiting workers from touching kids in their care. Still, what Kraft described witnessing in South Texas were staffers who believed they were not allowed to touch the kids to soothe them, and behaved accordingly, and children who cried and cried yet were not physically comforted.