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Home / Press Release / New Report Details Negative Impact of Detention at Berks County Facility on Women, Children
August 19, 2015

New Report Details Negative Impact of Detention at Berks County Facility on Women, Children

New York City—In a report released today, Human Rights First found that children and their parents detained at the Berks County Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania experience tremendous legal and health challenges, including detrimental effects on their mental health that may begin within days of incarceration. The families also encounter delays in their immigration proceedings, lack of access to legal counsel, face obstacles and delays to release due to bonds that are too high for them to afford, and are suffering from symptoms of mental health problems. The difficulties faced by families at the Berks detention facility present yet another example of why the Obama Administration should abandon its flawed policy of detaining families who have fled violence and persecution in Central America. 

“The bottom line is that detention, even for short amounts of time, is detrimental to the health and well-being of a child,” said Human Rights First’s Olga Byrne, author of today’s report. “The Obama Administration should immediately abandon this misguided approach and implement other measures, such as community-based programs, which are proven effective and less costly.”

Over the last few months, including just last week, Human Rights First staff visited the Berks family detention facility and met with asylum seekers – parents and children – who were held at the facility, some for many months. While the facility is set in a picturesque area of Pennsylvania and detained families are permitted to spend some time outdoors, it is clear that any detention is harmful to children. Children and families at Berks expressed their anxiety over this loss of liberty, saying they did not feel they should be "incarcerated" since they had not committed any crime or act of delinquency. In its report, Human Rights First found that:

  • Obstacles to release and counsel remain.  Six weeks after the DHS reform announcement, detained families continue to face obstacles to release such as unaffordable bonds, delays in interview processes, and/or lack of counsel. Some families are asked to pay bonds of $5000 or more, amounts that are too high for indigent asylum seekers to afford, blocking or delaying their release from detention. Many families detained at the Berks facility do not have legal representation.    
  • Detention damages children’s mental health and well-being.  Many parents detained at the Berks facility—including those who have been detained for two or three weeks—reported symptoms of their children’s behavioral regressions, depression, anxiety, and increased aggression toward both parents and other children. Parents also reported troubling changes in sleeping and eating patterns.   
  • Berks does not operate as a “child residential facility,” and should have its license revoked. Advocates in Pennsylvania have called upon the Pennsylvania authorities to revoke the license it has granted to the Berks County Residential Center as a child residential facility for dependent and delinquent youth. Notwithstanding the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare’s contention that Berks is “not operating as a secure facility,” children and parents expressed anxiety and stress over their "incarceration" and "imprisonment."
  • The facility has no Spanish-speaking mental health staff, which undermines the staff's ability to assist children and families.  Berks does not have Spanish-speaking mental health providers, even though the majority of families sent to family detention in the United States are Spanish-speaking and many have suffered high rates of trauma, physical and sexual violence, and exploitation.
  • Frequent room checks disrupt sleep, causing fear and anxiety. The practice of entering and shining flashlights into the rooms of sleeping families every 15 minutes throughout the night causes insomnia, fear, and anxiety in children and parents held at the Berks facility. 

Today’s report, “Family Detention in Berks County, Pennsylvania,” comes following two important developments in the administration’s family detention policy. In June 2015, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced a series of reforms, which included measures to reduce the length of time families were held in immigration detention. In late July, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued an order instructing the government to show why it should not be ordered to comply with the Flores Settlement Agreement, which articulates the legal standards for the detention, release, and treatment of children by immigration authorities. The administration’s response, which makes it clear that DHS still wishes to use immigration detention to “dis-incentivize” or deter families from seeking protection in this country, is under consideration from the judge and a ruling is expected soon.

Over the past year, a wide array of groups has spoken out against the government’s policy of detaining families. The American Academy of Pediatrics stated in a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson: "The act of detention or incarceration itself is associated with poorer health outcomes, higher rates of psychological distress, and suicidality making the situation for already vulnerable women and children even worse." U.S. faith leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and bar associations, including the American Bar Association, have called for an end to family detention.  Pro bono leaders have decried the many obstacles to legal representation, and the overwhelming majority of Democratic Congressional leaders have opposed family detention, with 178 House Democrats recently calling on DHS to end its “controversial” family detention program.

“Even if DHS can successfully implement its reforms to limit detention times, children will still suffer during their weeks in detention,” noted Byrne. “This is a preventable and unnecessary trauma that is being inflicted on children and their families, many of whom have already faced severe hardship fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. The government has the capacity and the tools to implement other measures, such as less costly community-based alternative to detention programs, which have proven successful in ensuring appearance in court and can also provide necessary social support to children and families.”

Tomorrow at 1p.m. EDT Human Rights First will host a media telebriefing featuring Byrne, two pediatricians who have toured the facility, and a woman who was detained at Berks with her six-year-old child. For more information or to RSVP to tomorrow’s call, contact Corinne Duffy at DuffyC@humanrightsfirst.org or 202-370-3319.