Must Reads: A 3-year-old was separated from his father at the border. Now his parents are dealing with his trauma
In the living room of the one-bedroom Van Nuys apartment, the boy tried to explain, in the words of a 3-year old, what happened to his father.
“Papá cae en piso,” he said, turning briefly from a game on his mother’s phone.
Dad fell on the floor.
Andriy Ovalle Calderon recounted the moment his father was restrained by Customs and Border Protection officers four months ago as he tried to cross into Texas illegally.
The boy spent more than a month with a foster family in California before being released in April to his mother, who separately had turned herself in at a port of entry with her younger son. Claudia Calderon has been allowed to stay with her mother-in-law while she waits for an immigration judge to hear her asylum claim.
Her husband, Kristian Francisco Ovalle Hernandez, was deported to Guatemala.
At night, Andriy sometimes wakes up screaming in the bunk bed he shares with his mother and baby brother. When he started to wet the bed, Calderon put him back in diapers. Sometimes he throws his tiny body down on the floor, hands behind his back, acting out what happened to his father.
As federal agencies work on reuniting more than 2,000 families that remain apart, affected by the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, many children are struggling to cope with the aftermath of the separations.
A 1-year-old taken from his father in November still wakes up crying, quieting only when his mother reassures him that she is there. In the first week of living in a Jefferson Park apartment, he would grab his mother’s legs and start to cry if someone came to visit.
“Those are absolutely classic signs of acute trauma,” said Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist. As a volunteer at an immigrant respite center in McAllen, Texas, Cohen identified and helped traumatized children and adults separated in detention.
A child taken from a parent is flooded with anxiety, which quickly turns into panic, Cohen said. Children’s bodies and brains, “are absolutely not built to withstand that level of stress.”
In several letters to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics opposed separating parents and children, citing the trauma.
“As children develop, their brains change in response to environments and experiences,” one letter said. “Fear and stress, particularly prolonged exposure to serious stress without the buffering protection afforded by stable, responsive relationships — known as toxic stress — can harm the developing brain and harm short- and long-term health.”
Robbed of a parent or a known caregiver, children are susceptible to “learning deficits and chronic conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even heart disease,” according to Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“There is nothing worse you can do to a child than taking their parent away,” Cohen said. “For a lot of these children … even though they’re reunited with their parents, they now have implanted in their brain the fact that that parent can disappear at any moment, for no reason, without warning.”
Crime and fear for his family’s safety spurred Ovalle Hernandez to leave Guatemala, taking Andriy with him. His plan was to send for his wife and younger son once he was in the United States and could scrape together enough money.
On the afternoon of Feb. 26, Ovalle Hernandez reached the Paso del Norte Port of Entry in El Paso.
A Customs and Border Protection officer told him to stop several times as he tried to bypass primary inspection lanes. The officer grabbed Andriy, while Ovalle Hernandez was taken to the ground and restrained, according to a criminal complaint.
Ovalle Hernandez told officers that he had paid someone 30,000 quetzal, or $4,000, to guide him from Guatemala, according to Customs and Border Protection. That person told him to force himself past officers at the port of entry and in doing so, “he would have a right to be admitted into the U.S.”
He was arrested, charged with attempted illegal entry and detained with his son. The next day, Ovalle Hernandez said in a phone interview, he was separated from his son.
More than a week passed with no communication from her husband, so Calderon said she decided to head to Texas with her three-month-old, Adrian. Detained by U.S. authorities for only a few days in early March, she was released and went to her in-laws’ in Los Angeles.
It wasn’t until she arrived that she learned what had happened to her husband and son.
Calderon spoke with a social worker who told her Andriy was fine and with a foster family. In order to get him back, Calderon said, she was told she needed a family member with legal status. Her sister-in-law, a lawful permanent resident, provided her information to authorities.
Before the mother and son were reunited, Calderon said, she received from the Office of Refugee Resettlement a 50-page sponsor handbook that included details on what to expect when he came home.
“Children who have a history of traumatic experiences often have nightmares, reliving the terrible things that happened to them,” one section said. “Some children refuse to go to bed and fight bedtime, some struggle to sleep because they are too afraid, and others may wet the bed.” The handbook included a number for the ORR National Call Center to provide support.
When Calderon picked Andriy up from International Christian Adoptions in Temecula on April 14, he called her tía, or aunt.
“Soy tú mama,” she said, crying as she held him. I’m your mom.
Two months in the life of a child “is almost like two years in the life of an adult,” Cohen said. When Andriy was reacquainted with his mother, he possibly felt tricked and didn’t know whether to trust her, Cohen said.
When the boy finally processed who Calderon was, he asked: “Y mi papí?”
And my dad?
The foster family had celebrated Easter with Andriy, taken him to Disneyland and horseback riding. They bought him clothes and toys.
“They could give him everything, but what he was missing was his mom and dad,” Calderon said.
At her mother-in-law’s house, Calderon showed her son photos they had taken in Guatemala, trying to remind him of his family.
It took him almost two weeks to stop calling her tía. When Los Angeles police cars pass by, Andriy notices. Another “pia” he says, unable to say the full word — policía. Since his father’s arrest, Andriy tells his family that he doesn’t like the police. When he sees a security guard or police officer, he starts to cry.
Trying to keep a piece of his father, Andriy wants to wear the shoes his dad bought for him in Guatemala — even though they don’t fit any more.
“I want him to be happy again,” Calderon said. “He’s so little and he has all of this in his head. … I wish I could help him, but I can’t. Just my love and affection isn’t enough. He wants to be with his dad.”
Ovalle Hernandez was deported at the end of May. Andriy tells her he wants to go to “Tamala,” the only way he is able to pronounce Guatemala.
“Every time he says that,” Calderon said, “I want to grab my things and go.”
Calderon wants to take Andriy to therapy, but said she doesn’t have the money. Instead she tries to console him the best she can, holding him tight every night the way his father used to.
When asked by a reporter about post-release services for children who are separated from a parent, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman emailed a link regarding health and safety.
“Once a child has been placed with a parent, relative, or other sponsor, the care and well-being of the child becomes the responsibility of that sponsor,” one paragraph said. “For the great majority of children who are released to sponsors, HHS does not provide ongoing post-release services.”
When Calderon talks to Ovalle Hernandez, he tells her to come back. Both he and Calderon grew up without fathers and don’t want the same for their two sons.
But Ovalle Hernandez’s family tells her to think of her children and push her to stay.
“First should be your love as a mother,” said another sister-in-law of Calderon’s, a woman who declined to be identified because she is in the country illegally.
Even as Ovalle Hernandez cries over missing milestones, including his younger son getting his first two teeth, he remains unsure over what’s best for his family. For now, he is living with an aunt in Guatemala.
“I want to see them, this separation really hurt us,” Ovalle Hernandez said. “But I don’t want them to come. Life is so hard here, we had to sell our house. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
At the very least, Calderon doesn’t want to leave until she receives a notice to appear for Andriy, fearful that he could be taken away once more. She worries that when she goes to court for her asylum case that she will be deported without her son.
“They already took him once,” she said.
On a recent afternoon, Andriy ran around a park near his house, kicking around his World Cup soccer ball, taking breaks to hug his 7-month-old brother cradled in his mother’s arms.
When he saw a little girl crying on the slide, he comforted her, just like he does his mother whenever he catches her weeping over his father.
The perils of parenting through a pandemic
What’s going on with school? What do kids need? Get 8 to 3, a newsletter dedicated to the questions that keep California families up at night.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.