On Monday, a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government cannot continue administering psychotropic drugs to immigrant children without their consent.
The decision caps a controversial practice which was revealed in July. An immigrant detention facility in Texas was accused of force-feeding children medications intended to treat psychiatric disorders. Told they were taking ‘vitamins,’ the drugs were meant to combat mood disorders, schizophrenia and other serious diagnoses.
An investigation into the circumstances showed the medications were used to sedate the children, some of whom were deemed unruly.
U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee, based in Los Angeles, said the federal government violated portions of a ‘longstanding settlement’ that governs the treatment of immigrant children detained at the border.
Gee, writes the New York Times, ordered the government to obtain individual consent or a court order before medicating minors. Exceptions could be made only in emergency situations.
Along with strict controls on the use of psychotropic substances, Gee demanded that officials explain to children why they’re being held in secure facilities. She added that evidence of gang affiliation alone doesn’t justify putting adolescents behind bars.
“The kids weren’t getting notice of why they were sent away,” said Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California-Davis. “We view this as a victory.”
The ruling follows months of heightened tensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Beginning in May, U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions announced a “zero-tolerance” policy for all persons caught illegally crossing the border. Under the Justice Department’s purview, prosecutors were instructed to arraign migrants in criminal court.
Families detained for immigration-related offenses were broken apart. Young children were remanded to detention facilities while their parents awaited trial.
Minors apprehended alone are, according to the Times, ‘placed in government-contracted facilities until they can be released to screened sponsors in the United States or returned to their countries. Most children are placed in non-secure shelters, but in some cases, more secure placements are used.’
Gee’s ruling comes weeks after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of children held at the Shiloh Treatment Center in Texas. Litigation is still ongoing. One psychiatrist who perused the facility’s medical records and prescription lists called the use of psychotropic substances as sedatives essentially “Soviet.”
The government defended its practices at Shiloh, saying pills were ordered only in emergencies and when children presented with “extreme psychiatric symptoms.”
But Gee seemed skeptical, citing testimony from children who claimed to have been fed pills “every morning and every night.” She said officials “could not have possibly” encountered emergencies daily.
Her ruling cited the 1997 Flores agreement, which requires the government to place immigrant children in the “least restrictive” environment manageable. Concessions should be given for age and special needs.
Shiloh’s practices, ruled Gee, violate the terms of the Flores agreement and are “not necessary for the protection of minors or others.”