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Nightmares and selective amnesia: the trauma of a 6-year-old girl separated from her parents at the border

The suffering of children who were separated at the border doesn't always end when they're reunited with their families. This is the case of Adayanci Pérez, a 6-year-old Guatemalan girl who was taken away from her family for three and a half months. Her condition shows major mental and emotional repercussions caused by the 'zero tolerance' policy of Donald Trump's administration. Psychologists warn that without proper treatment her trauma could be permanent.
7 Oct 2018 – 05:15 PM EDT
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SAN MARCOS, Guatemala. A six-year-old girl with a white dress sits in the middle of a classroom in the village of Santa Ana, in the department of San Marcos, Guatemala. This rural school is celebrating the return of Adayanci Pérez Chávez, one of the minors separated from their parents after illegally crossing the southern U.S. border. Everything is set for the party, but there is no music or games. The girl is surrounded by her friends as if they are observing a wounded animal: they talk to her gently, they touch her face, they hug her and stroke her hand. But the little girl, holding a blank stare, doesn’t respond. She seems mute.

"Remember Lupita?," Corina, one of her teachers, asks her. "You used to play with her all the time. Sweetie, you don’t remember Lupita?"

"How she used to move, that Adayanci!" Lupita said, surprised that her friend no longer wants to dance like they used to before the trip.

"You’ll forget everything you lived through," Corina insists. "You’re going to participate in activities so you can forget everything they did to you there."

Adayanci just returned, but for those who know her, the girl who grabbed a pair of scissors to cut her hair during an attack of frustration while living in a Michigan foster home is very different from the sweet, happy, expressive, dance-loving little girl who left Guatemala with her father last May.

“Yes, everyone noticed something odd because she wasn't like this before. Everyone sees a different child," her mother, Alma Lucerito Chávez, reflected. "She used to smile, talk and participate in everything, but not anymore. She didn’t even want to talk to her classmates. She did not want to talk, or laugh, or even say, 'Hey friends, I’m back!' She didn't speak. Her classmates asked why she was acting like that.”

As the party ends, the woman still sits in the classroom with her sleeping daughter in her arms. During the afternoon, Adayanci, surrounded by her friends, collapsed into a deep sleep. She was finally in safe a place after stressful months away from everything she knew. “It terrified me. She was not like this,” mourns Chavez in a phrase repeated by those who know the girl in Santa Ana.

There, Adayanci’s behavior causes concern. After living three and a half months in foster homes in Kalamazoo, Michigan, she returned home not remembering her aunts or her classmates, spending long moments staring into the distance. She also seems introverted, weepy and rebellious. Nightmares wake her in the middle of the night and she has not been able to establish a normal routine at school, explains her mother.

More than two months after the deadline given by a court to the government to reunite families separated at the border as consequence of President Trump’s 'zero tolerance' policy, some 400 minors have yet to be united with their parents. And many of those who have been could still be suffering the consequences of the separation, as evidenced by Adayanci’s case.

Documents by psychologists and professors who dealt with her in Michigan, and interviews with friends and family in Guatemala, reveal the psychological effects of the separation: trauma and severe post-traumatic stress that, if not treated properly, could mark the girl for the rest of her life. A treatment for a situation like this is almost impossible to get for Adayanci’s family.

The diagnosis: separation trauma

Adayanci was separated from her father on May 12, when the Border Patrol stopped them after crossing illegally into the United States. He was sent to a detention center in Arizona, where he spent two weeks before being deported to Guatemala. According to the father, Hugo Leonel Pérez Mazariegos, he was returned home without his daughter and “under deceit.”

She was sent to Kalamazoo, where her constant crying and the stress evidenced by psychological reports helped lawyers from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, the organization that represented her, get a “voluntary departure” form without having to wait for a court appointment, thus expediting the deportation process.

One of the reports, signed by child and family psychologist Susan M. Carter on August 13, shows that Adayanci suffers from “name amnesia” and has learning difficulties resulting from the trauma caused by the separation. The report describes the girl as a “typical preschool girl from Guatemala” who lived traumatic incidents and circumstances and who is “in a fearful, agitated and hyper-alert state because of her foreign environment.” It also states that she is trying to cope with the situation “to the best of her ability, behaviorally and psychologically.”

“There is little in her experience right now that is ‘safe’: she is in a foreign country as a very young child, without family, parents, or relatives…everything is foreign and unpredictable to her,” the report states. “She has no ability to control any element of her existence…She appears to be in an acute trauma reaction which results in the behaviors and lack of ability to learn that have been observed in school.”

According to Carter, the girl described her encounter with the Border Patrol and the separation from her father as “bad, sad and scary.” Carter warned that, the longer she remained in a state of “hyper arousal”, due to being separated from her parents, the higher the chances of permanent damage to her nervous system. The psychologist’s diagnosis, given a couple of weeks prior to her return to Guatemala, said that Adayanci suffered a “post traumatic stress disorder”. She recommended reuniting the girl with her biological parents to resolve these difficulties.

Another document, signed by professor Sarah Schautz, an educational coordinator for refugees at the Transitional Foster Care who attended the girl in Michigan, reveals Adayanci’s difficulties to stay seated and to control her body, as well as her constant falls when walking or running, which she attributes to a defense mechanism to cope with “the trauma and adapt to frequent changes in her environment.”

The professor described Adayanci as a smart, sweet and energetic girl who showed “a desire to learn and a will to improve her performance,” but acknowledged that she would need “support from educational staff during the transition” and recommended occupational therapy to help her, along with “patience, understanding and encouragement.”

“Children paying for adults' mistakes”

On August 30, more than two weeks after those reports were written, Adayanci returned to Guatemala wearing green unicorn print pajamas, a tutu, a pink backpack and a suitcase packed with clothes, photos and toys she received from the two foster families that sheltered her in Michigan. Her parents awaited at the capital, along with her 3-year-old brother DiMaria Leonel, and other family members who traveled more than six hours from her hometown in a pickup truck.

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The reunion, however, was nothing like they had imagined. It did not take long for Alma Lucerito and Hugo Leonel to realize their daughter had changed. “She did not want to talk. She just hugged us and started crying. She did not say a word. I was terrified because I saw her acting very strangely, scared. She just looked at us and grabbed onto us. She hugged us and cried,” remembers the mother.

“When I welcomed her, she looked at me very different from before,” the father said. "What surprised me most was that, when her aunts went to hug her, she said she did not know them and rejected them. I said, ‘Mija (my daughter), this is not you. What is wrong?'"

Hugo Leonel, who says Yanci, what they call her for short, is “the light of his eyes,” is dealing with his own trauma after his daughter was taken from him at the border. During the months of separation and uncertainty, when the little girl called them and could not stop crying, both he and his wife thought about going into the United States to get her back themselves.

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The father struggled every time the girl asked him why he had abandoned her. “’Mija, I did not leave you’, he said he told her. ‘They took me out [of the country] with lies. They told me you were coming with me’. They are liars. Why are they so cruel when you haven't done anything to them, you haven't killed anyone or stolen anything?’”

Now, Hugo Leonel must find a way to gather the money to settle the debt he has with the coyote who helped him cross the US border, while wondering what he can do to help his daughter go back to how she was before.

Even though Yanci’s family does not understand the reports sent by the psychologists in Michigan, written in English, which diagnose the girl with post-traumatic stress and recommend a therapy to overcome it, they know their girl needs help. However, they lack the resources—both at home and in school—to find a specialist.

The experts say that, if Adayanci does not receive proper treatment, the effects of this separation could last her entire life.

“If you do not resolve, don't process traumatic events from childhood, it becomes a definite predisposition factor for future traumas. You could say that the damage is permanent,” says psychologist María Basualto, who has been treating immigrants in Florida for 12 years.

According to Basualto, small children who are separated from their parents at the border lack the capacity to process “such a terrorizing event” without help, which leads to loss of self confidence and to losing confidence in their environment and in the world.

“The message is: ‘I separate you from your family because you committed a crime by coming here illegally’. However, the child does not understand that this is the ‘zero tolerance' policy of the US government. Rather, what they understand is that they have been abandoned,” Basualto said, who considers these separations at the border “systemic child abuse” for which the Trump administration should provide indemnification.

For now, however, no help has arrived to the house Adayanci shares with six other family members in Santa Ana. The only help they have is the desire her parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, teachers and classmates have to help Adayanci become once again the same joyful and expressive girl who was always first in line to dance at school in a traditional Guatemalan dress.