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UN report on child detention cites Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program research

A recently released report by the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, Felipe González Morales, relied upon research provided in a submission by Stanford’s Human Rights in Trauma Mental Health Program (HRTMHP).

The HRTMHP is an interdisciplinary collaboration that strives to advocate and promote justice for survivors of human rights abuses by elucidating the health and psychological impacts of human rights violations in judicial, human rights, and transitional justice processes. Its members consist of faculty and graduate students drawn from Stanford University’s Schools of Law and Medicine (including the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences), Stanford’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, and Palo Alto University. Since early 2018, HRTMHP has engaged in monitoring, investigating, and reporting on the detention and mistreatment of migrant youth and families arriving on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The report, “Ending Immigration Detention of Children & Ensuring Adequate Reception & Care for Them,” examines the international legal framework protecting the human rights of migrant children and identifies best practices. It reaches many of the same conclusions the HRTMHP reaches in its submission: immigration detention of children is an avoidable child rights violation, and UN member states should shift away from enforcement and coercion towards providing human rights-based care for all migrant children and their families.

Citing the HRTMP’s submission, the UN report finds that “detention, even for short periods, has a detrimental and long-lasting effect on a child’s development and their physical and mental well-being, and might aggravate previous trauma.” Further, “children who are detained for extended periods are more likely to experience fear, isolation, psychological deterioration, disempowerment and depression” and “the abuse and neglect children are exposed to in detention can instigate or compound mental disorders and developmental problems.”

At a launch of the report on December 3, co-author and Clinical Associate Professor at Stanford’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Ryan Matlow, PhD asked about the issue of detention being guised as "child care," which the Special Rapporteur addressed in his concluding remarks. González Morales rejoined that many pretexts are being used to justify child detention, but states need to use measures of child protection that do not violate children's liberty, and which constitute torture. He said he believes that the standard of an absolute ban on torture should be strived for and applied in this context. The Special Rapporteur also said he feels the report is an important first step to universal abolition of this practice.

"Our program is gravely concerned about the impacts of recent US immigration policy and practice on the psychological health of children and families, and we are committed to addressing the torture and traumatization of this community as human rights and public health issues,” said Matlow. “We have been struck by the concerning parallels between experiences at the US-Mexico border and other international contexts. International collaboration, co-learning, and accountability are critical, and we are grateful for the opportunity to contribute the UN Special Rapporteur’s efforts."