BOSTON — President Donald Trump's administration should be held accountable for emotional trauma inflicted on children who were separated from their parents at the U.S. border, lawyers say in a lawsuit that could result in compensation for more than 2,000 immigrant families.
The federal class-action lawsuit filed late Wednesday seeks unspecified monetary damages and the creation of a fund to pay for mental health treatment for children who were taken away from their parents after the Republican administration adopted a policy requiring anyone who crossed the border illegally to be prosecuted.
Now that many immigrant families have been reunited, lawyers say the focus should turn to helping children with the lingering psychological effects of their separation and detention. The attorneys say they believe this is the first case in the country to request damages for all children from central and South America who were separated.
"These children suffer from nightmares. They chew their fingernails until they bleed. They fall out of bed at night because they are startled awake from fear," said Susan Church, one of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit in Worcester, Massachusetts, against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other administration officials.
"This lawsuit is being brought so we don't have to see what happens to these children 20 years from now when they have suffered this trauma and it's never been addressed," she said.
U.S. Department of Justice officials didn't immediately respond to an email on Thursday.
The U.S. government separated more than 2,500 children from their parents this year as the Trump administration adopted a "zero-tolerance" policy on illegal immigration. On June 20, Trump reversed course amid an international outcry and said families should remain together. More than 300 parents remain separated from their children.
On Thursday, the Trump administration also moved to abandon a longstanding court settlement that limits how long immigrant children can be kept locked up, proposing new regulations that would allow the government to detain families until their immigration cases are decided.
Attorneys say many families whose children are suffering the psychological consequences of their separation must currently rely on lawyers to connect them with free services. Many parents can't get health insurance or drivers' licenses and don't speak English, which makes it difficult for them to find help, Church said.
The lawsuit details the stories of two families from Guatemala who are seeking asylum in the U.S. The parents and children are identified in the complaint only by their initials in order to protect their privacy.
One father, who was separated from his 11-year-old son for more than a month after they arrived in the U.S. in June, told reporters Thursday that he feared he would never see his son again.
The father, identified in the lawsuit as F.C., said his son was hit in the face by another child while he was in detention. Now, his son routinely has nightmares that he's being chased by the child, he said.
Another parent was separated from her 9 year old and 17 year old when they arrived in the US in May, the lawsuit says.
The mother, identified as L.O., fought back tears as she described feeling like her children were being kidnapped when immigration officials took them away. She was told her children were being separated from her to punish her and that they would be given up for adoption, she said.
Her daughter now wakes up in the middle of the night crying and fears her mother will abandon her again, the complaint says.