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Three Refugee Mothers Forcibly Separated from their Children File Class Action to Address Trauma Inflicted by Government

Complaint Seeks Immediate Family-Centered Mental Health Services for Families Separated at the Border Due to Psychological Trauma and Severe Harm Inflicted by the U.S. Government’s Family Separation Policy.

LOS ANGELES, JULY 12, 2018 – Three refugee mothers who were forcibly separated from their children by the United States Government have filed a class action complaint in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. The complaint seeks immediate family-centered mental health services for families separated at the border due to psychological trauma and severe harm inflicted by the government’s family separation policy. This is the first class action filed by migrant parents that is supported by expert declarations from over a dozen of the nation’s leading child trauma experts.

“What these children are experiencing is unconscionable and contrary to who we are as a people,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law. “We are asking the court to demand that the government address the harm they have deliberately inflicted, following mental health best practices, and immediately release from detention all separated families and provide appropriate care to address the harmful trauma caused by this inhumane detention. The bond between parent and child is to be protected at all costs, not to be severed by government for use as a bargaining chip.”

Upon separation from their parents, children experience acute psychological distress. During the moment of separation, a child can experience extreme stress, as well as feelings of anxiety, fear, hopelessness, and a sense of doom. These effects may be exacerbated by the additional trauma caused when witnessing a parent’s reaction to separation. The longer the parent and child are separated, the greater the harms the child experiences.

“The Constitution forbids the federal government from separating parents and children as punishment for seeking refuge in our country,” said Mark Haddad, Lecturer in Law at USC School of Law, and retired partner at Sidley Austin LLP. “The parents bringing this lawsuit need to be reunited with their children immediately. These families should be released from detention and should promptly receive the services they urgently need to address the trauma the government deliberately and needlessly imposed.”

Papers filed with the federal court include statements testifying to the trauma suffered by the children separated from their parents from many of the nation’s leading child trauma experts, including:

  • Dr. Marleen Wong, Senior Vice Dean, the David Stein/Violet Goldberg Sachs Endowed Professor of Mental Health, Director of Field Education, Executive Director of the USC Telehealth Clinic, Clinical Advisor, Family Nurse Practitioner Program, and former clinical Advisor to the Cohen Military Clinic
  • Dr. Bruce C. Perry, Senior Fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy, Adjust Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago
  • Kenneth Berrick, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Seneca Family of Agencies
  • Dr. John Sprinson, Clinical Director, Seneca Family of Agencies
  • Dr. Jill Duerr Berrick, Zellerbach Family Foundation Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley
  • Dr. Kevin Campbell, Founder of the Center for Family Finding and Youth Connectedness
  • Dr. Jose Hidalgo, Board-Certified Psychiatrist, Massachusetts General Hospital, Instructor of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Dr. Luis Zayas, Dean of the Steven Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, Robert Lee Sutherland Chair in Mental Health and Social Policy, Professor of Psychiatry at the Dell Medical School of the University of Texas at Austin
  • Dr. Dylan Gee, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University

“I have been an asylum attorney for 25 years, and I could never have imagined what is happening inside our country today,” said Judy London, directing attorney of Public Counsel’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “We have been inside the detention centers and have spoken with mothers who have not been able to speak with their children for weeks. These parents are terrified for their children and want nothing more than to ensure the scarring that this experience has already caused does not continue to inflict irreparable harm. We will work tirelessly to see families united and given the care they need to heal.”

The lawsuit also seeks to have the parent’s own rights vindicated in response to the harm of family separation, including the right to be released to be with their minor children while they await the conclusion of their asylum application.

“This complaint follows directly from the government’s extraordinary decision to separate asylum-seeking parents from their children in circumstances that traumatize both parent and child,” said Amy Lally, partner with Sidley Austin LLP. “It is critical that parents join their children both by being released together from detention and in court. Through this complaint we are trying to ensure that they receive the mental health services they need to somehow begin to recover from this horrific ordeal.”

The mothers are represented by Public Counsel and Sidley Austin LLP. The three mothers had initially filed a motion on June 25, 2018, to intervene in the ongoing implementation of the Flores Settlement Agreement—a decades-old court settlement that governs the federal government’s procedures for detaining refugee children. In light of rapidly changing legal developments, and in discussion with mental health experts, it was decided the most effective approach for securing timely mental health services was for the three refugee mothers to file a class action and withdraw their motion to intervene.

Read the class action complaint here.


Public Counsel is the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. Founded in 1970, Public Counsel strives to achieve three main goals: protect the legal rights of disadvantaged children; represent immigrants who have been the victims of torture, persecution, domestic violence, trafficking, and other crimes; and foster economic justice by providing individuals and institutions in underserved communities with access to quality legal representation. Through a pro bono model that leverages the talents and dedication of thousands of attorney and law student volunteers, along with an in-house staff of more than 75 attorneys and social workers, Public Counsel annually assists more than 30,000 families, children, immigrants, veterans, and nonprofit organizations and addresses systemic poverty and civil rights issues through impact litigation and policy advocacy.

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