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'Washington Post': Therapy Notes Are Being Used Against Migrant Children


Last year, the U.S. held a record number of migrant children in custody. While they fight to stay in this country, many of those kids will go to mandatory therapy sessions to help them deal with trauma. But what if the government could use those sessions and that trauma against them? Washington Post reporter Hannah Dreier has been investigating this. She wrote extensively about a 19-year-old named Kevin Euceda. He fled from Honduras in 2017.

HANNAH DREIER: Kevin was fleeing gangs in Honduras. He was orphaned when he was young, and gangs took over his house.

KING: So what did he do for them?

DREIER: He sold drugs for the gang, and he acted as a lookout. So he would tell the gang what was going on in the neighborhood. And when he was 17, the gang was going to ask him to kill someone. And so he fled. It took him three months, and he came to the U.S. and asked for asylum.

KING: And what happens to him once he gets to this country?

DREIER: So Kevin crossed on an inflatable raft. He was found by Border Patrol. And because he was 17, Border Patrol turned him over to an agency called the Office of Refugee Resettlement. And that's the agency that's responsible for every kid who comes to the U.S. alone or is separated from their family at the border. And he went through an intake process. And all through this process, people are telling him, you're safe now. You're in the U.S. We're here to help you. And the last part of that process was he was taken to talk to a therapist.

KING: Tell me about the therapist.

DREIER: So the therapist was young. She was still working on getting her clinical license. She spoke Spanish. And she told Kevin, this is your chance to tell us your story. We're going to help you. And nobody had ever said anything like that to Kevin before. He says it was the first time an adult had offered to help. And so he started to tell her everything. He told her about how his grandmother used to beat him. He told her about having to sell drugs for the gang. He told her about his decision to flee and how scared he was that the gang might be looking for him and that they might try to kill him if he returned to Honduras. And he left the session feeling lighter. He says it was really helpful to talk about some of that trauma for the first time.

KING: Was he talking to the therapist confidentially?

DREIER: The therapist said that everything would be confidential unless he talked about potential harm to himself or others, which is pretty much the standard confidentiality that you or I would have in a therapy session.

KING: But then at some point, Kevin learns that what he said in those private sessions with the counselor has been given to someone or to people. Who got the notes on Kevin's therapy sessions, on what he said in therapy?

DREIER: Kevin's notes ended up going through two federal agencies and were eventually passed to ICE.

KING: OK. So we have a 17-year-old who's sent to therapy, told it's confidential. This is all part of how things have always worked, right?

DREIER: That's right. The agency that oversees shelters for migrant children is a child welfare agency. So for two decades, children have been required to go to therapy. And that therapy has always been carried out with the mission of helping the kids adjust and dealing with the trauma that most kids have faced before they come to the U.S. So all that is normal.

KING: Why, then, were notes from Kevin's private therapy sessions sent to people at ICE?

DREIER: Well, in 2017, the Trump administration started really changing the mission of that therapy. There was a lot of fear that criminals and gang members might be coming across the border to do bad things in this country. And the agency responded. So therapists are now asked to find out whether kids have criminal history.

KING: Did the therapist who was working with Kevin - did she know that her notes on him were being sent to ICE?

DREIER: She says that she had no idea.

KING: So as a result of this policy shift, you have a 17-year-old boy who goes into therapy, admits a bunch of things, including that he was part of a gang, he was selling drugs for a gang and that he had participated in some amount of violence. How is that then used against him?

DREIER: Those notes were used against Kevin for the first time he had a court hearing. He thought that he would be released that day. And instead, what happened was the ICE attorney handed over a copy of the notes that therapist had taken to the judge and started cross-examining him on the notes. So she started saying, did you tell somebody that you sold drugs? Did you tell somebody that you witnessed violence? And he was shocked. His lawyers were shocked. As a result of those notes being filed in that way, he's been in detention now for 2 1/2 years.

KING: Is it legal for a therapist's private notes with a client to be shared with an agency like ICE?

DREIER: You know, professional organizations like the American Psychological Association say this is very unethical, but it is actually legal. And that's in part because the government is acting as the parent in this situation. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has custody of the children, so they can ask for the kids' records and share them as it sees fit.

KING: Have you met Kevin Euceda in person?

DREIER: I have, yeah.

KING: How's he doing?

DREIER: I mean, he's very alone. He's been in detention for almost three years now, and he's scared to talk to anybody around him. He doesn't feel like he can trust anyone.

KING: He's 19 years old now?

DREIER: He's 19. He's been granted release twice. He's been granted asylum. And he's also been certified as a human trafficking victim.

KING: Why is he still locked up then?

DREIER: Initially, it was just this one therapist report about what had happened in Honduras. But after he was transferred to this high-security detention center, he decided he wouldn't talk about his past anymore. He would just talk about his feelings day-to-day. That seemed safer. And so one day he said that he felt like he was going to explode. One day he said he'd thought about hitting a kid with a ball but went to calm down and didn't hit the kid. And those then also became part of his file, and ICE has used those disclosures also to argue that he's too dangerous to be let out.

KING: What happened to the young therapist, the one who saw Kevin in confidence and didn't realize that notes from their session were going to be shared with ICE?

DREIER: When my story came out, she learned what had happened to her notes, and she resigned.

KING: And why do you think that is?

DREIER: I have found that, in talking to therapists, many of them have been really shocked at what's going on with their notes. And I think they also feel betrayed. These notes were shared without their consent, as well. I think a lot of people are grappling with whether they can justify staying in the system, where kids need help, where kids have real trauma, even if it means that they have to make promises of confidentiality they can't really keep.

KING: Hannah Dreier is a national reporter for The Washington Post. Hannah, thank you so much for coming in.

DREIER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIM-E STACK'S "EVERYTHING TO SAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.