Families with young children protest the separation of immigrant families with a sit-in at the Hart Senate Office Building, Thursday, July 26, 2018, on Capitol Hill in Washington. At the time, the Trump administration faced a court-imposed deadline to reunite thousands of children and parents who were forcibly separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, an enormous logistical task brought on by its "zero tolerance" policy on illegal entry. Credit: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

From her holding cell, the Salvadoran mother could see her daughter across the room, surrounded by other children. The mother and daughter had been separated days earlier at the border, among the hundreds of migrant families caught up in the government’s new “zero tolerance” policy.

After a guard left her daughter’s cell open one day, the 15-year-old slipped out and brought her mother a small bottle of water.

“Our fingers touched through the chain-linked fence,” the mother, identified as R.M. in court filings, said in her account to lawyers. “I told her that everything was going to be OK and that I loved her very much. This was the last time that I touched my daughter.”

Soon after, R.M. was transferred to a detention center in Washington, thousands of miles from her daughter.

“I was inconsolable. I got maybe one hour of sleep per night,” she said. “I could not eat. I could not talk to anyone. All I could think about was my daughter.”

R.M. is now among the plaintiffs in a federal case seeking to require the government to provide mental health services to migrant families separated this summer at the U.S.-Mexico border. In all, roughly 2,600 children were torn apart from their parents. More than 500 children remain in federal custody as of last week.

“Plaintiffs and their children are entitled to appropriate screening,” reads the complaint, filed in July. “These mental health services cannot be provided in the same slipshod manner as the government implemented its initial trauma inducing policy.”

The lawsuit was filed in the Central District of California by lawyers from Public Counsel, Sidley Austin LLP, and the Immigrant Advocacy and Litigation Center. Their court filings include opinions from several trauma experts that say family separation can have short- and long-term mental health consequences if left untreated. Besides the initial separation, trauma is also triggered by other factors: limited phone calls, detention in crowded cells, lack of information about the whereabouts of their loved ones.

One doctor noted that the separation “can take a toll on parents and may cause physical and mental health symptoms such as loss of sleep, loss of appetite, headaches, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.”

Government attorneys argue in court records that many families have already been reunited.

“Defendants already provided appropriate psychological screening and treatment during intake, throughout detention, and prior to release,” they wrote.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for Sept. 20 in front of U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt. Lawyers representing the families are also seeking class action status. Among the plaintiffs is a woman identified as J.O., who left Honduras with her 16-year-old daughter after her husband was killed by drug dealers.

“They kept the lights on all day and night, making it nearly impossible to sleep,” she said. “I was given a piece of bread and a juice box for food. There was nothing for us to do but sit on the ground and cry.”

The third plaintiff is J.P., a Guatemalan mother who was separated from her 16-year-old daughter. As officers took her daughter away, the girl fell and hit her face.

“What if I am deported without her?” J.P. said in her account filed in court. “I fear I will never see my daughter again.”

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Laura C. Morel can be reached at lmorel@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @lauracmorel.

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Laura C. Morel (she/her) is a reporter for Reveal, covering reproductive health.

She previously covered immigration during the Trump administration. Before joining Reveal, Laura was a reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, where she covered criminal justice issues.

She was a 2022 finalist for the Livingston Award, which recognizes young journalists, along with Reveal data reporter Mohamed Al Elew for an investigation that exposed racial disparities within a federal lending program. She was also a Livingston finalist in 2017 as part of a team of reporters that investigated Walmart’s excessive use of police resources.