A Difficult Road For Abused Children Seeking U.S. Asylum
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Violence in Central America has driven thousands of unaccompanied children north, seeking asylum in the U.S. Adrian Florido of member station KPCC spent some time at a clinic for those children in Los Angeles. Hi, Adrian.
ADRIAN FLORIDO: Hi, Arun.
RATH: First, could you help us get around our heads around the scale of the problem? How many children have arrived in the Los Angeles area from Central America in the last year, and what kind of health needs do they have?
FLORIDO: Well, between October of last year and October of this year, there were about 6,000 unaccompanied minor children who were released to sponsors in California. And there are estimates that about half to more than half of those are actually settling in Los Angeles. And so many of these children have experienced trauma back in their home countries. And the doctors and psychologists who are treating them are noticing the evidence of this trauma - so, you know, scars or even evidence of sexual assault in girls. And they're documenting this trauma because it could become very important in these children's legal cases in immigration court or in their effort to obtain asylum.
RATH: One would think that the main priority would be to get these kids help for the trauma that they've suffered, but you found that conflicts with other concerns. Could you explain?
FLORIDO: That is one priority, Arun. But another priority is for these kids' immigration cases to go through the courts. So the mental health providers and attorneys who are helping them are working together, but their goals in trying to help these kids often conflict. I have a piece of tape here from Judy London, one of the attorneys who takes on a lot of these unaccompanied minor cases.
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JUDY LONDON: We're trying to get the child to talk about the trauma 'cause that's what they need to do to get asylum. I mean, if they go to an interview and say, I don't really want to talk about being afraid, they're not going to be able to stay here. But the therapist's goal may be, let's get the child as far away from talking about the trauma because they're really not ready to process it.
FLORIDO: And, you know, a lot of times, these lawyers are facing a time crunches because these cases are being expedited through the courts. So sometimes, the only option that the mental health providers have are to - is to ask the attorneys to seek an extension so that they can help the kids work through the trauma, so that they don't relive and re-traumatize themselves when they're sitting in a courtroom or in an asylum interview.
RATH: And for those children or their families that are not granted asylum, what happens if these kids are sent back to their country of origin?
FLORIDO: Well, at this point, you know, it's hard to say exactly what happens. This possibility is very real. And a lot of the kids and their families who are here know this, and they've heard these stories. And so, you know, I asked Elena Fernandez, the mental health provider at St. John's clinic, whether they addressed this possibility in their sessions.
ELENA FERNANDEZ: We definitely address that in treatment. What does it mean for you to be returned to your country of origin? What does it mean? And they talk about their fear. They talk about their worry. They talk about their anxiety. And we talk about how they would cope. But our goal in working with our collaborating law firms is to try and ensure they do stay here.
FLORIDO: So here, she's talking about the kids who do have attorneys and do have, you know, psychologists who are helping them, you know, resettle and try to stay here in the U.S. A lot of the unaccompanied minor kids do not have this kind of professional help. So her clinic is actually working on an effort to try to bring more of these kids in. They're working in collaboration with the consulates here in LA to try to get them services.
RATH: Adrian Florido of member station KPCC, here in Los Angeles. Thanks, Adrian.
FLORIDO: My pleasure, Arun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.