The Trump Administration's 'Tender Age' Facilities Are Prisons for Babies and Toddlers

Javier Tapia (left), age 5, and his brother, Charlie Tapia, age 7, from Seattle, look at a Federal Detention Center holding migrant women on June 9, 2018 in SeaTac, Washington. The boys, whose family is originally from Mexico, were here as part of a protest.
Javier Tapia (left), age 5, and his brother, Charlie Tapia, age 7, from Seattle, look at a Federal Detention Center holding migrant women on June 9, 2018 in SeaTac, Washington. The boys, whose family is originally from Mexico, were here as part of a protest.
Image: Getty

The Trump administration, its brutality truly limitless, is detaining babies and toddlers who have been forcibly removed from their parents at what are being called “tender age” facilities.


There are three such detention centers in South Texas, and the Associated Press reports that they have no policy around how young is too young for detention:

Even the policy surrounding what age to take away a baby is inconsistent. Customs and Border Protection field chiefs over all nine southwest border districts can use their discretion over how young is too young, officials said. And while Health and Human Services defines “tender age” typically as 12 and under, Customs and Border Protection has at times defined it as 5 and under.

This horror started after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy in May, in which the administration would seek to prosecute 100 percent of adults crossing the border without authorization and forcibly separating children from their families. Since then, the government has taken 2,342 children from their families, the AP reports. Officials couldn’t tell reporters how many detained children were “under 5, under 2, or even so little they’re non-verbal” during Tuesday’s White House press briefing.

In addition to the three facilities where very young children are detained after being forcibly removed from their parents—prisons for babies, essentially—a warehouse in Houston used as shelter during Hurricane Harvey will be repurposed to hold 240 more children.

“The facilities that they have for the most part are not licensed for tender age children,” Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told the AP. “There is no model for how you house tons of little children in cots institutionally in our country. We don’t do orphanages, our child welfare has recognized that is an inappropriate setting for little children.”

In the meantime, no one in the administration seems to agree on what the child separation policy is, exactly, or who created it (they did), or how to end it (they can just stop doing it!). Those differences aside, none of them object to current protocol, which is snatching kids and babies from their parents and throwing them in detention facilities. The path to reunification after this trauma is inflicted on families is daunting, with no guaranteed outcome. This is horrific.


Update 6/20, 10:55 a.m.: A Reveal and Texas Tribute investigation into government contractors that run migrant shelters has found that the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Refugee Resettlement has repeatedly awarded grants to organizations that “faced serious allegations or citations” between 2014 and 2018. These contracts make up nearly half of the federal government’s spending on housing migrant children.

From the report:

Allegations included staff members’ failure to seek medical attention for children. One had a burn, another a broken wrist, a third a sexually transmitted disease. In another shelter, staff gave a child medicine to which she was allergic, despite a warning on her medical bracelet. Inspectors also cited homes for “inappropriate contact” between children and staff, including a case in which a staff member gave children a pornographic magazine.


While the report does not specifically address the care at the administration’s new “tender age shelters,” the report notes that these facilities are beginning to handle children who have been forcibly separated at the border. “The sudden addition of thousands of children is straining these shelters, heightening the risk for neglect and abuse,” the report states. Read it here.

Prachi Gupta is a senior reporter at Jezebel.


Another awful note on top of all of this: nearly half of Central American babies are breastfed until age 2.

That means half of those babies in the “tender age facilities” had nursing mothers. (Possibly more!) Abruptly stopping breastfeeding is painful and can actually be quite dangerous, and women taken from their babies can develop serious infections like mastitis. Even in the best case scenario, they will definitely suffer from a painful inflammation called engorgement, and are likely doing so with little to no medical help or comfort. They almost certainly have no access to pumps to keep their milk going or any privacy to hand express for relief.

You also can’t just “start it up” again. Once a woman’s breast milk dries up from a long term separation, it’s basically gone.

There are mothers sitting in those detention blocks, in genuine medical need and pain, knowing they will probably never nurse their babies again even if they are lucky enough to get them back.

Burn the whole motherfucking thing down.