Dr. Satsuki Ina: Licensing family detention as "childcare" harkens back to WWII-era euphisms

The following is an excerpt of Dr. Satsuki Ina's letter to top officials at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services last December as the agency moved forward a proposal to license controversial family detention centers in an effort to keep them open.  We thought this was timely to repost because litigation brought by detained moms and Grassroots Leadership to prohibit the state from licensing family detention centers as childcare facilities may be decided later this month.

Dr. Ina is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Counselor Education, School of Education, California State University, Sacramento. There she taught advanced theories and clinical practice courses in Marriage, Family, Child Counseling and Multicultural Counseling. She produced two award-winning documentary films about the Japanese-American incarceration, Children of the Camps and From A Silk Cocoon.

Dear Judge Specia, Mr. Woodruff, and Ms. Carmical,

Over 70 years ago, I was incarcerated with my parents in a federal “family detention facility” in Crystal City, Texas.  We had not committed a crime, and our right to due process of the law was exempted and bypassed as hate and fear gripped the country in 1941. We were held for 4 years and 3 months for what was later determined the result of “hysteria, racism, and the failure of political leadership.”  As a Japanese American and former victim of the trauma of unjust and indeterminate detention, I am appalled by the possibility that the state of Texas would consider exempting the two facilities that currently house thousands of children, from basic regulations deemed essential for the care and welfare of children.

“Bending the rules” to justify the incarceration of children in a prison-like environment is no less than putting lipstick on a pig.  In April and in May of [2015], I visited children and their mothers in what is euphemistically called, the “South Texas Family Residential Center” in Dilley, Texas.  Not unlike the prisons where my family and hundreds of other Japanese American children were held, our prisons were named  “relocation centers and family camps” in order to mask the truth of our circumstances.  As a child therapist specializing in the treatment of trauma, I was deeply disturbed by what I witnessed and heard from the children and their mothers during my visits.

Stern, unfriendly guards led me and my fellow visitors, through locked doors to the visitation room after requiring us to leave all of our belongings, including art supplies and writing materials in lockers outside.  During my visit, I met with six families who had been held for varying lengths of time. Aside from the intense anxiety, depressed mood, and grief expressed by the mothers, I noted significant signs of what I would consider “captivity trauma” of the children. Hyper-vigilant checking of the guards, fearful clinging to the mothers, sad and guarded demeanor, signaled the child’s consciousness of being under guard.  No doubt these children had previously been traumatized in their home country, and then during the uncertain journey to the US border, and now their incarceration living with strangers who arrive and depart with no regularity, while under the constant, watchful eye of prison guards.  When visitation time was up, the children, clearly rule-bound and fearful, would immediately stand and leave the room like little automatons.

Confining innocent children and their parents in prison-settings is cause for long-term consequences leading to mental health problems.  For the past 30 years I have served as a therapist to many Japanese Americans who were, like myself, children while incarcerated during WWII.  Decades later, having lived in a state of long-term anxiety, separated from familiar surroundings, sharing intimate space with total strangers, being held in the arms of anxious mothers, not only set an emotional baseline of fear and mistrust, we know now from research in neuroscience that the constant release of stress hormones under such circumstances, has a negative effect on the developing child’s brain.

More than 40 years after the war, the United States government apologized for the dehumanizing incarceration of thousands of families. For many, the apology and redress was too late in repairing the long-term damage.

I hope that you will consider the parallels of what is happening in our country today with what was happening back then and take strong steps to declare that the human rights of these children must be upheld to the highest standards of care. Do not allow these private prison facilities to masquerade as “child care centers”!

The very nature and design of these detention facilities cause harm to the children held there.  These facilities simply cannot be made humane, particularly through a licensing process that exempts the facilities from basic child welfare standards and ensures that the detention centers will continue to operate essentially as they do now.

Let us learn from our past. Do not waiver in the face of the current climate of fear that is gripping our country today.

— Dr. Satsuki Ina