When migrant children attempt to take their lives

Published on
August 24, 2022

In its first three months in power, the Biden Administration recorded hundreds of incidents when migrant children in the custody of the federal refugee agency expressed past or present thoughts of suicide. Some of those children also attempted to end their lives. 

Putting an exact number to this tragic reality took years. 

Over the years, family and community members, attorneys, and advocates had warned that migrant children confined in the federal government’s vast shelter system were thinking about ending their lives, or attempting to do so. In 2019, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the federal government, hoping that records archived by the Office of Refugee Resettlement would shed light on what was happening behind closed doors. 

While the request was acknowledged, and we communicated about narrowing my request, the government didn’t produce records. The following year, in 2020, The Center for Investigative Reporting filed suit — not only for these records, but for four other federal information requests I’d previously requested. 

As part of a long settlement process, the refugee agency initially produced summary data: for the period between 2014 and 2019, more than 7,000 migrant children experienced suicidal episodes in federal custody. But those records were stripped of basic facts, like dates when the incident occurred and, just as importantly, they didn’t include narratives about the incidents. Without that information, it was impossible to provide a clear picture to the public of what took place. 

We asked the government to produce those details, but it claimed doing so would take years. In 2021, as the settlement discussion dragged on, we agreed to accept records about suicidal episodes concerning migrant children during the first three months of the Biden administration. Ultimately, we received eight data sets for a total of 666 records; each record contained 61 columns that included the child’s age, country of origin, and placement location, along with five columns detailing the incident that had occurred. 

It took weeks to clean the data. I had to read each of the narratives to ensure they really reflected suicidal episodes, and remove those that didn’t. Others were removed because they were duplicates – but they were difficult to identify quickly because they contained small differences, like one punctuation mark. The work was done by carefully combing every entry, one by one, and it unveiled a rich data set that helped me see where, when and under what circumstances these migrant children were most at-risk of suicidal thoughts. 

Once clean, the data indicated that between January 20 and April 28, 2021:

  • Migrant children reported suicidal episodes 567 times while in refugee agency custody. The reports were daily occurrences, with as many as six children expressing these feelings or taking these actions per day. 

  • One in every four children who reported suicidal episodes were referring to incidents that occurred before arriving into custody, indicating that migrant children often experienced significant trauma before arriving to the United States.

  • The average length of stay for the 140 children who experienced suicidal episodes while in federal custody was an average of 37 days; that showed that, on average, thoughts of suicide developed after weeks away from family. 

  • Licensed programs were more likely to deal with the incident on-site. Children in unlicensed emergency shelters, meanwhile, were 20 times more likely to be treated by outside emergency rooms and psychiatric centers. 

But the numbers alone don’t really speak for themselves: The narratives contained in the records provided harrowing details behind the suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. Over and over again, children reported that the strain of being away from their families and communities was taking a severe toll on their mental health, to the point that they were thinking about or attempting to end their lives, and ten children did attempt to do so.

Before the pandemic, I would often spend a considerable amount of time with migrant families whose children had suffered in refugee agency custody: children who’d been forcibly drugged, placed in empty office buildings, or separated from their families for half-a-dozen years. 

During the pandemic, it’s been impossible for me to make those in-person connections. Early on, I didn’t want to talk to a child or to their family about a time when they tried to end their life by phone or video-call. I drew a line – not only out of a desire to protect children who’d already experienced incredible trauma but also to protect my own mental health. 

What I didn’t anticipate was the way the narratives, just words on a screen or paper I’d print out, would deeply affect me. Some records contained extremely short descriptions — one incident simply described that the child “commented he wanted to leave and wanted to kill himself to get out of shelter,” but didn’t capture the reasons why. The only other note in the record states that he was observed at the in-house clinic. Other descriptions were far more detailed, containing up to 3,000 words in one record to describe the situation in sometimes graphic detail. 

For weeks, I spent days reading about horrific cases of sexual abuse, torture, and death. A full night’s sleep was sometimes hard to come by — and even when I did sleep well, every new morning meant returning to the same records on the same screen. 

Part of what haunted me was the impossibility of capturing every narrative in one story. I began tracking some of the most compelling narratives – a pregnant 16-year-old, a 9-year-old who was isolated due to COVID, a 14-year-old who was ripping her hair out — to help produce graphics that readers could swipe through. Creating a space for some of the nearly 600 suicidal episodes was a relief. 

U.S. immigration policy, which continues to favor visitors from white-majority countries and regions, results in the separation of families. Migrant children, particularly those from Central America, will continue to arrive alone at the border, seeking asylum and reunification with a family member already in the U.S. According to the records I’ve amassed, more than 400,000 have been through the refugee system in the last decade. That number will continue to grow. 

There are hundreds of thousands of records and stories about what happens to these children. Knowing what records to seek, fighting to make sure those records are released, and having a grip on the context is the very least I can do to help the public understand what’s happening to some of the most vulnerable children on the planet.