Immigrant shelters drug teens: Whether they came to the U.S. alone.

Fleeing an abusive stepfather in El Salvador, Gabriela headed for Oakland, California, where her grandfather had promised to take her in. When the teenager reached the U.S. border in January 2017, she was brought to a federally funded shelter in Texas.

Initially, staff described her as receptive and resilient. But as she was shuttled from one Texas shelter to another, she became increasingly depressed. Without consulting her grandfather, or her mother in El Salvador, shelter staff have prescribed numerous medications for her, including two psychotropic drugs whose labels warn of increased suicidal behavior in adolescents, according to court documents. Still languishing in a shelter after 18 months, the 17-year-old doesn’t want to take the medications, but she does anyway, because staff at one facility told her she wouldn’t be released until she is considered psychologically sound.

Gabriela’s experience epitomizes a problem that the Trump administration’s practice of family separation exacerbated: the failure of government-funded facilities to seek informed consent before medicating immigrant teenagers. Around 12,000 undocumented minors are in custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. The majority crossed the border unaccompanied, while more than 2,500 were separated from their parents while Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy was in effect from April to June.

Emotional distress and mental health issues are prevalent among these children, sometimes a result of traumatic experiences in their home countries, at other times triggered by being separated from parents at the border, or by fear that they will never be released from ORR facilities. Former shelter employees, and doctors and lawyers working for advocacy groups say the shelters lack sufficient counselors and too often turn to powerful psychotropic drugs when kids act out.

Under most states’ laws, before a child is medicated, a parent, guardian, or authority acting in the place of the parent—such as a court-appointed guardian ad litem— must be consulted and give informed consent. But in these shelters, the children are alone. Shelter staff may not know the whereabouts of the parents or relatives, and even when that information is available, advocates say that the shelters often don’t get in touch. Nor do they seek court approval. Instead, they act unilaterally, imposing psychotropic drugs on children who don’t know what they’re taking or what its effects may be.

“These medications do not come cost-free to children with growing brains and growing bodies — psychotropic medications have a substantial cost to a child’s present and future,” said Dr. Amy Cohen, a psychiatrist who has been volunteering in border shelters. “A person whose sole concern is, what is in the best interest of a child — a parent or a guardian ad litem — that role is desperately needed now.”

Gabriela is one of five immigrants under age 18 who are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Los Angeles against Alex Azar, the head of HHS, and Scott Lloyd, director of ORR. The suit alleges that children are overmedicated without informed consent. Another plaintiff, 16-year-old Daniela, became suicidal after being separated from an older sister who accompanied her from Honduras to the U.S. border. She has been given Prozac, Abilify, Clonidine, Risperdal, Seroquel, and Zyprexa in various shelters as staff have been unable to settle on a diagnosis, detecting at different times bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and major depressive disorder. Her older sister was released from custody and allowed to stay in the U.S., but wasn’t consulted about whether Daniela should take those medications, which have side effects including weight gain, uncontrolled spasms, and increased suicide risk. The lawsuit doesn’t disclose the last names of the plaintiffs. Another ongoing class action lawsuit in the same court, against the U.S. Department of Justice, alleges the U.S. is inappropriately medicating immigrant minors as young as 11 years old, violating standards established in a 1997 legal settlement.

In legal filings, Justice Department lawyers have said that the shelters are acting appropriately, in accord with state laws on informed consent. “There is good reason for this Court to conclude that ORR’s provision of such medications complies fully with ‘all applicable state child welfare laws and regulations,’” the department said. State and local authorities, rather than the court, are best positioned to determine whether shelters are in compliance, it also argued.


  1. This is child abuse of the highest order. This is not for the welfare of the children. This is chemical restraint and is merely the easy way for a bunch of subhuman trash who are getting rich off of human incarceration to deal with teens anxious, scared, angry, and resentful because they were forcibly separated from their loved ones. When senators are turned away from these facilities and only cherry picked videos are shown to the public, that says these facilities have much to hide. I think those involved with the forced medication of these kids, especially the doctors who took the Hippocratic Oath to first do no harm, should be punished severely with long prison sentences. The doctors who prescribed these medications that are very risky for teens should be stripped of their medical licenses permanently.

    I’d like to know if these facilities are owned by private prison contractors like Geo or CorpCivic (CCA). There’s no depth of depravity these companies WON’T sink to in order to make a quick, easy buck.

  2. So, this is much worse than the situation they fled from? Maybe they’d be much happier getting sent back to where the started from? I think most of this is being exaggerated to make bleeding hearts go crazy with blind obvious insight. What right do these people have to complain when they know they are going to be separated at the border – yet they come willingly. This must mean they are happy to just get into our country any way they can. They are supposed to be fleeing from horrific conditions and yet when given three squares and a bed all they want to do is complain. There are thousands of these illegal criminals trying anything they can to get into our country, what can anyone reasonably do with that many criminals at any one time? They have to go somewhere. They are still being supported off taxpayers labor. They’re not paying for their shelter and food. If they want to complain about the complicated system they have created for this country then ship them right back to where they’d be so much happier. Save us from getting hit with another huge tax rate some of us can’t afford anymore. Too many Americans are losing everything and ending up in the streets as these people are being put into the homes we lose. Time to make this bologna stop.


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