(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department is asking a federal judge to approve a psychologist for a new round of exams on migrant parents whose children were separated from them by the Trump administration.
The government’s request, filed last week, is part of an ongoing lawsuit in Arizona federal court on behalf of five mothers who were separated from their kids under then-President Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy which mandated prosecutions for all illegal border crossings. The mothers are now seeking compensation from the U.S. government for the emotional and mental damages they say they endured after their children were taken from them.
A lawyer representing the families said the women have already undergone psychological evaluations by experts they provided. But the Justice Department, in its court filing, said they would like their own expert, Dr. Ricardo Winkel, to make an assessment.
“Plaintiffs intend to support their claims of injury through expert testimony and have each submitted to multiple mental health evaluations by their own expert. It is standard practice for plaintiffs alleging severe emotional injury to be examined by the opposing party’s expert,” the Justice Department’s filing states.
President Joe Biden condemned and campaigned against Trump’s family separation policy, which Trump initially paused under intense backlash before a judge put an end to the program in June 2018.
Biden previously said he was in favor of compensating families separated at the border.
“If, in fact, because of the outrageous behavior of the last administration, you coming across the border, whether it was legally or illegally, and you lost your child — you lost your child — it’s gone. You deserve compensation no matter what the circumstance,” Biden said in November. “What that will be, I have no idea. I have no idea.”
Around the same time, however, settlement discussions between some of the migrant families and the federal government broke down shortly after Biden dismissed reports that his administration was considering payments of up to $450,000 for families, according to sources familiar with the situation.
“That’s not going to happen,” Biden said in November of that amount.
Government lawyers said in court filings that they hope the additional exams will “develop findings on each Adult Plaintiff’s current psychological condition and prognosis, as well as on the cause or causes of each Adult Plaintiff’s presentation, all of which are central issues in this litigation and matters on which Plaintiffs themselves intend to introduce expert testimony.”
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt — who is working with some other migrant families who were separated under Trump — said he fears that subjecting them to more evaluations could be re-traumatizing. (The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on its latest filing.)
“The American Academy of Pediatrics called it child abuse. Reliving the events is triggering all that trauma, and the government knows that these families suffered severe trauma,” Gelernt told ABC News. Gelernt is the lead counsel in several cases dealing with family separation, including Ms. L v. ICE which led to a court ordering the Trump administration to halt the practice and reunite families.
“This administration should not be hiring doctors to try to downplay the harm suffered by separated families under the Trump administration’s cruel policies,” Gelernt contended in a statement, “especially given that President Biden called those policies criminal and a moral stain on the nation.”
The Justice Department proposed in its filing last week that its expert, Dr. Winkel, would conduct the additional examinations at a time and place “that is agreeable to all interested parties” and would consist of up to four hours for a clinical interview and four hours of testing. Parents would undergo personality and emotional functioning tests as well as trauma-specific exams.
The ACLU has been working with the Biden administration’s Family Reunification Task Force to address the fallout from Trump’s separation policy, but the ACLU says they’re still searching for 151 families who are without their children.
Gelernt said it was clear that the reunited families continue to be traumatized by their experience, adding that some of his clients start crying when they talk about what they went through.
“There is such unbelievable guilt feeling like — could they have stopped the separation? Of course they couldn’t, but [what’s] heartbreaking is to see their little children blame them for not doing more to stop the separation,” Gelernt said. “In some cases, a child will say, ‘Daddy, why didn’t you stop them? Didn’t you love me enough?"”
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