With the recent announcement in the news of another wave of unaccompanied children coming to the United States, Claudia Carmargo, Mental Health Therapist, shares her experience of working with these minors and salutes them for their courage:
When I was 14 years old my biggest concern was making sure I put up my ‘away message’ on IM (Instant Messenger) before I left the house and getting home in time to watch Total Request Live, my favorite show.
Unfortunately, not all young people lead such carefree lives, as I learned in August of 2013, when I began my internship at Mary’s Center and was given the opportunity to work with Hailey.*
Hailey is 12 years old and had recently arrived to the U.S. from El Salvador with her younger brother and sister. She was guarded in our first meeting and answered most questions with one word responses. I met with Hailey’s mother individually and she informed me that she had arranged for her daughter to come to the U.S. because Hailey was being sexually abused by her uncle in El Salvador. That same uncle was also physically abusing Hailey’s younger brother; who even suffered a broken arm as a result of the abuse.
Hailey’s mother came to the U.S. when Hailey was 5 years old. She came to the U.S. in order to look for stable employment and to be able to provide for her children. Meanwhile, Hailey and her two younger brothers stayed in El Salvador in the care of their maternal grandmother.
When Hailey’s mother found out about the abuse that was occurring in El Salvador, she immediately began arranging a way for her children to come to the United States She quickly realized that in order to get them into the U.S. quickly, they would have to come by land, meaning she would have to pay a ‘coyote’ to take them from El Salvador through Mexico and, ultimately across the Texas border.. Although, Hailey’s mom was aware of the risks in having her children cross the border, she felt that keeping her children in El Salvador was riskier.
After an arduous two-month-long journey, Hailey and her brothers arrived in Maryland. While they crossed the U.S. border they were detained by immigration officials and sent to a local group home. Hailey’s brothers were reunited with their mom within a couple of weeks. Hailey was held by the authorities for two months while they investigated Hailey’s sexual abuse allegation against her uncle. During one of our many sessions Hailey said “I had no idea what was going on, I thought I was going crazy and in an insane asylum”.
Hailey was the first unaccompanied minor I worked with at Mary’s Center. Since then I have lost count of the children and adolescents I have provided mental health services
to that came to the U.S. hoping to find a safer place to live.
Most of these children have experienced some traumatic event in their home countries or during their journey to the U.S. The issues I most frequently see in these children are symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and difficulty adjusting to their new family and the country.
Some of these children have had an extensive history of sexual, emotional and physical abuse before arriving in the U.S. They’ve started using self-harming behaviors to cope with their symptoms or have completely withdrawn from everyone around them.
Although many of them feel safe in the U.S. knowing that this is a country where laws are respected, they live in constant fear that they may be sent back home to a country where laws are meaningless.
Hailey often told me that many nights she did not sleep because she worried that she’d have to return to El Salvador and face her uncle again. Hailey often times feels suicidal and worthless because of the sexual abuse she experienced and could not imagine how she would ever be able to live a normal life.
Hailey also struggled to form a relationship with her mother; she hadn’t seen her in eight years and felt an immense amount of resentment towards her. Hailey’s mother desperately wanted to develop a mother-daughter bond with Hailey but found it difficult to make up for the time apart. Hailey and her mother were not the only clients that struggled to form a bond when reunified. In almost all of the reunification cases that I have seen at Mary’s Center parents and children had a difficult time forming an attachment to one another. Many unaccompanied minors have expressed feelings of anger and abandonment towards the parents who left them in their home countries. Parents are taken aback by their children’s feelings and frustrated when their children do not give them the respect they feel they deserve as parents.
* Name changed.
Click here to read Part 2 of this blog.
About Claudia Camargo, LGSW, MSW:
Claudia Camargo began her work specializing in therapy for children and families at Mary’s Center in June 2014, and works at both the Flower Avenue and Adelphi locations. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Family Science from the University of Maryland in College Park, and a Master of Social Work from University of Maryland in Baltimore. Along with her degrees, she is also licensed in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She would like to remind people that “Every day is different.Tomorrow could be much better.” Ms. Camargo speaks both English and Spanish, loves dogs, and enjoys yoga, reading, going to the beach, and dancing.