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NYC volunteers describe trauma 'in ways I had never seen it before' among separated immigrant families

The New York Daily News - 9/18/2018

Sept. 18--Carmen Blanco is a clinical social worker who has spent her career treating children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But even that couldn't fully prepare her for what she saw last week working with children held in immigration detention on the southern border.

"This week I saw PTSD in ways I had never seen it before," Blanco, the supervisor of child adolescent psychology for Health + Hospitals said Monday at a City Hall press conference. "We were very careful in reviewing the criteria, and this is the first time I have seen every single symptom hit. And it was frightening to us, but worse for the families."

Blanco was part of a team of city workers, including Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Bitta Mostofi, who spent a week volunteering in Dilley, Texas, offering pro bono legal and social work help to immigrant families detained there.

Many of those parents and children had been separated for weeks or months -- some of the children they met had been brought to New York City, which at one point was caring for more than 300 separate children. After a court order demanded they be reunited with their parents, many of those children have since returned to Texas -- where they've been reunited with their parents in family immigration detention.

"I had a little girl who has been detained for a very long time. When I asked her as part of the clinical interview, 'So, what's your favorite animal?' She looked at me and said, 'Una mariposa.' I said why? 'Por que puede salir de aqui volando,'" Blanco said. "A butterfly. Because it can get out of here by flying."

"Her pictures didn't have feet. They speak of the helplessness," she continued.

The city wound up with the largest population of separated children outside of the border states this summer, drawing ire from elected officials here who opposed the separation policy and who struggled to get information from the federal government about where, exactly, the children were. All but about 40 of the children brought to New York have been reunited with their parents after the court order; those who remain are largely children of people who have been deported already, officials said.

The city announced at the press conference that it would earmark $4.1 million from its legal defense budget to provide help to those remaining separated children -- and to a much larger pool of unaccompanied minor immigrants, who crossed the border along and have for years been arriving in New York to stay with sponsors while their asylum cases move through immigration court. Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks said that funding would help the city secure legal representation for another 900 children.

But for many, lasting damage has been done -- and that damage can also harm their immigration cases. Blanco recalled parents so traumatized they struggled to be able to participate in their own asylum cases.

"They had nightmares, they weren't able to sleep, they experienced intrusive thoughts, traumatic recollections and the inability to concentrate on anything else except when am I going to see my child again? And no one was giving them right information," Blanco said. "And now we're asking these women to participate in the advocacy that was going to get them asylym, an impossible task, and all you can think of is: 'They told me my baby now belongs to the government.'"

Mostofi, the immigration affairs commissioner, said her week in Dilley showed her "the kind of heartbreak that will really stay with me forever."

"I met mothers who had been separated from their children all of whom would start by saying 51, 52, 53 -- the number of days they were apart from their children," she said.

While many of those families had now been reunited, they all remained detained.

"Separating children from their families is horrific and it runs counter to who we are as a city and a country," she said. "Holding families in indefinite detention is not an acceptable alternative."

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