OPINION: “When children are in detention, they are particularly vulnerable to psychological distress”

By Ana Alanis

This opinion piece is part of a series written by our #Youth members, for our Voices of Children & Young People Around the World report.


Children in Detention  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States was experiencing an unprecedented surge in the number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving to the country (primarily from Central America), and being detained at the southern border.

While, under U.S. law, the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) and Health and Human Services (HHS) were responsible for the wellbeing of any detained child, the increase in apprehensions was threatening to overwhelm the systems set up to care for them. While on paper, there were strict rules on the fundamental rights of migrant children, in reality, policies like the zero-tolerance policy (April 2018) resulted in high-risk situations and human rights violations for many immigrant children. Under the zero-tolerance policy, all adults entering the US without authorization were able to be detained and prosecuted, instead of being released while they awaited their court date. Because minors could not be detained with their guardians, over 4,300 families were separated between July 2017 and June 2018, with children being recategorized as “unaccompanied”. Despite the fact that the policy was revoked, the practice of separating children from their guardians has continued. 

When children are in detention, they are particularly vulnerable to psychological distress (not knowing why they have been separated, or what the future holds), in addition to the physical vulnerabilities related to living in detention without a parent. Establishing contact with their guardians or other family members can prove nearly impossible, and there is little accountability at the level of each individual child. 


Ana Alanis is a member of Child Helpline International’s #Youth advisory council.