Kate Rossiter is an associate professor in Public and Community Health at Wilfrid Laurier University. Jen Rinaldi is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. Their book, Institutional Violence and Disability: Punishing Conditions, will be released in August.
“Kids are being separated from their parents ... and temporarily housed in what are, essentially, summer camps,” Fox News pundit Laura Ingraham said, in an effort to play down the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the U.S. southern border.
Her characterization was rightly met with international outcry. However, politicians, organizers and media struggle to access facilities holding migrant children who were separated from their families. In the face of limited evidence, how can we know what conditions these children face?
If history is any indication, these children face a future of violence and hardship. We know because we have spent the last five years studying institutional violence in care settings, particularly institutions that housed persons with disabilities. We believe that America has every reason to worry about committing grievous harm.
Even though U.S. President Donald Trump has ended the policy of separating migrant children from parents, his “zero tolerance” policy on migrants has already seen the incarceration of 2,400 children, with no apparent plan for reunification – or even a system of tracking who is where. This means thousands of children are likely to remain incarcerated for the foreseeable future.
In the early part of the 20th century, children with disabilities were placed into institutional care facilities as a matter of course. Years later, many of these children, now adults, have stepped forward to publicly disclose the long-held secrets of their incarceration: brutality, neglect, and in some cases, torture.
We have spent countless hours listening to stories of enduring neglect, public humiliation, severe beatings, solitary confinement and ubiquitous sexual abuse. Our research has shown us that institutions that are run for maximum efficiency, function outside the public eye, and house large numbers of vulnerable people with weakened ties to the broader community, are places where abuse and violence occurs both predictably and routinely.
The institutions the U.S. government has established to house “unaccompanied” migrant children and minors bear a jarring resemblance to those in which children with disabilities ended up. They were large, bureaucratic, and run to maximize efficiency. They were socially and geographically isolated, with services provided on the premises. They afforded scant privacy, little dignity, and scarce comfort to the children they housed.
More than anything, like the former Walmart in Texas that now functions as a migrant shelter – one of the few that reporters have been able to tour – these were spaces designed to segregate and dehumanize members of a vulnerable population.
What we have learned is that these institutional conditions invariably paved the way for violence. Indeed, institutional survivors from across North America relate daily experiences of verbal harassment and humiliation, forced medication, coerced unpaid labour, solitary confinement, physical beatings and sexual abuse.
Predictably, the same patterns of violence are beginning to surface from facilities used to house children in the United States. Recent allegations against the Shiloh Treatment Centre in near Houston (currently holding migrant youth) maintain that children there are being forcibly drugged with powerful psychiatric medication to ensure behavioural compliance.
Similarly, youth held on administrative immigration charges at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Va., allege inhumane treatment such as beatings and being held for long periods naked in solitary confinement.
We are heartbroken but not surprised. These are precisely the stories of institutional violence that survivors of institutionalization have told us for years.
While it is tempting to believe the current cheery rhetoric regarding the fitness of contemporary institutions designed to care for and house detained immigrant kids, our research indicates that this is rarely, if ever, the case. The drive to care for large numbers of people efficiently necessarily means that individualized care is sacrificed in an effort to contain costs.
Rather, what occur are daily violations and humiliations, which keep the facility running smoothly but pave the way for more overt forms of violence. These violations are even more extreme when the incarcerated population is both culturally devalued and socially invisible.
While incarcerating migrant children with their parents may appear to be an improvement, similar conditions are still likely to occur. Adult jails, after all, are rife with abuse – and certainly no place for children.
History reminds us, then: we have reason to fear the worst. Incarceration is nothing like summer camp.