Nuestra Comunidad: Latino children suffer from deportation fears

Gloria Juliao (left) and Bárbara Pérez form part of the Georgia Apex Project, which serves Latino children in three public schools in Gwinnett County.

Gloria Juliao (left) and Bárbara Pérez form part of the Georgia Apex Project, which serves Latino children in three public schools in Gwinnett County.

The constant fear of being approached by police officers and the possibility of deportation are affecting many Latino families. Young children in particular are showing signs of distress.

This, according to Gloria Juliao, Children and Adolescent Clinical Supervisor for CETPA, a non-profit counseling agency in Norcross which offers bilingual services to the Latino community for the treatment of mental health, addictions and emotional problems.

There, Juliao also manages the operation of the Georgia Apex Project, a program which offers mental health services in three elementary schools in Gwinnett County: Graves, Nesbit and Rockbridge.

“We see a lot of anxiety. For every therapist, there are two or three cases of children whose families are dealing with some sort of immigration issue, whether that be that a parent is in jail, is free but awaiting deportation or they have witnessed a raid,” explained Juliao.

“Some children aren’t sleeping. They lose their appetite; they have nightmares. They don’t want to go to school, because they don’t want to leave mom or dad alone. Or they’re constantly crying, they’re more irritable and acting impulsively or angrily,” she added.

The situation with these families is so complicated that Juliao has to support her team of therapists, who at times find themselves feeling overwhelmed with not knowing what answer to give to young children who are concerned about the future of their families.

Giving hope

In the midst of these circumstances affecting so many Latino families, programs such as GAP facilitate access to services that are necessary in order to help identify and treat emotional distress and other mental health symptoms in children.

“That’s where our program plays a very important role, because maybe the father or mother doesn’t have the mental or emotional capability or the necessary transportation to bring their child to receive services. But because we have the services inside the school, the referral doesn’t have to come from the mother or father, but rather it comes from the counselor or teacher,” said Juliao.

Since 2014, when the program was implemented through the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, more than 80 children have benefitted from its services, according to CETPA data.

“We have counselors who go to the schools, and they are there full time, five days a week,” explained Bárbara Pérez, a CETPA employee who works with schools and educates about the initiative.

Family issues

Pérez and Juliao hope to see the program extended. And despite the pervasive stigma that exists within the Hispanic community with regards to mental health, both experts say they have noticed that parents are more open to seeking help for their children and for themselves.

With the program in schools with predominantly Hispanic student populations counselors work closely with families who feel comfortable knowing that the services are close and in their language. An additional benefit is that the program is able to reach the parents as well.

“Don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek help. I know that in our cultures it’s very typical that what is discussed at home stays at home, or we go and speak to the priest,” said Juliao. “Parents know their children best. I always tell them: ‘I’m not the expert on your child, you are the expert on your child.’ And it’s important for them to know what changes they are seeing in their children.”