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Scores of Migrant Children Considered or Attempted Suicide in US Custody, Records Show

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Scores of Migrant Children Considered or Attempted Suicide in US Custody, Records Show

Picture of Aura Bogado

This story was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Data Fellowship.

Credit: Lola Avigliano for Reveal
Credit: Lola Avigliano for Reveal
Wednesday, June 22, 2022

NOTE: This story discusses instances of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts by children. ​​If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.  

On a Saturday night in April 2021, a 15-year-old migrant from Guatemala told a friend he was so desperate to get out of a government-sponsored emergency shelter that he was contemplating suicide. He badly wanted to be reunited with his uncle. The friend told an adult there. 

It was his 33rd night in confinement at the emergency shelter in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. But the shelter didn’t appear to be prepared to deal with the child’s mental health needs.

The records in the boy’s case, obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting through a public records request and subsequent lawsuit, underscore the confusion at the massive 2,300-bed facility: Three different entries in his record describe what happened in three different ways.

In one part of the government’s record, a supervisor from Culmen International – a military contractor awarded nearly $30 million to manage the emergency shelter – said the child should be taken to an on-site medical clinic for evaluation. The teen said he missed his family and confirmed that he did feel suicidal. He conceded what his friend reported seeing: that he tightened the identification badge lanyard around his neck. But he insisted he wasn’t trying to end his life. 

“Child dreams about getting out of here,” a staffer wrote. “Child appears sad but not desperate.”

One entry in the report says the child was seen at the medical clinic, where he confirmed thoughts of suicide and the clinic determined he was “just sad.” The boy was told “his feelings are normal,” according to case notes. But in another part of the record, a staffer said they were never informed about the boy’s suicidal ideation or attempt once he arrived to the clinic. A third entry says the child hadn’t been to the clinic at all.

That same evening, the teen was back in his sleeping cot in Pod G with a staffer watching over him for his safety, still far from the family he was longing to be reunited with.  

Early the following morning, Jackie Sanchez-Perez, a federal worker on loan to the Office of Refugee Resettlement to help run this emergency shelter, tried to find the boy to make sure he was safe. 

Sanchez-Perez demanded help from the Culmen command desk, the records state, and a runner escorted her to the 15-year-old at his pod. She introduced herself and told the child that he wasn’t in any trouble. 

He told Sanchez-Perez that he knew what this was about: “those thoughts.” The ones that drove him to think about ending his life. She was concerned that he never got the help he needed at the shelter, and he was transferred to a local children’s hospital for mental health care.

In President Joe Biden’s first three months in office, Reveal found nearly 600 episodes in which migrant children in the government’s custody said they’d considered or attempted suicide, either before or since arriving in the United States. 

Records document 141 instances in which migrant children expressed thoughts of suicide while in Office of Refugee Resettlement custody and at least 10 times when they attempted suicide. Children often complained about their length of stay, the isolation they felt after their friends were released and the suffering they experienced being away from their families. The children were in custody an average of 37 days at the time of the episode. The records indicate that no children died by suicide. 

In the vast majority of cases, children ages 6 to 17 told staff they’d considered or attempted suicide before ending up in custody. The children often shared their experiences with staffers in response to questions during a standard intake process. Notes in the government’s data indicate that the youth often were placed on safety plans and assigned counseling and close monitoring. They sometimes landed in hospitals because the government-sponsored programs – emergency shelters, licensed shelters and foster care – were unable to tackle the challenge alone.

Suicidal Episodes in Migrant Children’s Shelters

We analyzed nearly 600 records, archived by the Office of Refugee Resettlement between Jan. 20, 2021, and April 28, 2021, in which migrant children expressed thoughts of suicide before arriving to the United States or while in federal custody. These seven examples illustrate some of the stakes for children desperate to get out of custody and reunite with their families.