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Boston Nonprofit Sues To Get Compensation For Children Traumatized By Family Separation Policy

A Boston-based nonprofit is suing the Trump administration on behalf of children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of President Trump's now-defunct family separation policy.

The class action suit asks the federal government to address the long-lasting ramifications of that policy, including the toll on the mental health of the children.

The 125-page complaint filed Wednesday in Worcester District Court by The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice calls on the federal government to compensate the estimated 2,500 children affected by the family separation policy and to establish a fund for mental health care for children traumatized after being forcibly removed from their parents.

Oren Nimni, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee, says the policy itself has been addressed by the courts, but this class action suit aims to focus on the lasting effects on the children.

"They're having nightmares," he said. "They're terrified of spending any time without their parents."

Akemi Vargas, 8, cries as she talks about being separated from her father at the border during a protest on June 18 in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
Akemi Vargas, 8, cries as she talks about being separated from her father at the border during a protest on June 18 in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

The lawsuit, Nimni said, seeks to "hold the government accountable." He said it is an important step in addressing the ongoing fallout of the family separation policy carried out at the border just a couple months ago before — following widespread public outrage and bipartisan backlash — Trump ended his own policy. Nimni said he believes the lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation.

The suit was filed, he said, "So that the government can attempt to repair some of the harm that they've done to these kids."

The plaintiffs listed in the complaint are minor children and their parents who fled violence in Guatemala and headed to the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of applying for asylum.

Identified only by their initials in court documents, K.O. was 9 years old and E.O., Jr. was 17 years old when they entered Texas with their mother, L.J., on May 19. The complaint says that while E.O., Jr. was held in a separate waiting room, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents periodically screamed at a group of children in Spanish, saying, "Shut up, you donkeys!" The complaint also claims CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents insulted children when they cried in detention, shouting: "Shut up, you trash!"

The children K.O. and E.O., Jr. were released to their father, who lives in Westborough, Massachusetts, on June 19. Their mother, L.J., remained in federal custody until June 26 when she was reunited with her family in Westborough. They are now awaiting decisions on their claims for asylum. According to the complaint, K.O. wakes up in the middle of the night crying and often follows her mother around, fearful of being separated again.

Nimni says the crisis of separating families at the border may be winding down, but the question remains: "What is going to happen to these kids who have been through this traumatic experience?"

The federal government has not yet released a statement on the lawsuit.

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Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is a reporter representing WBUR on a team of public radio station journalists in the New England News Collaborative.

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