Psychiatric assessment of children and families in immigration detention--clinical, administrative and ethical issues

Aust N Z J Public Health. 2004 Dec;28(6):520-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-842x.2004.tb00041.x.


Objective: This paper reports the clinical, practical and ethical issues arising in the assessment of 10 consecutive referrals from a remote Immigration Reception and Processing Centre to a child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) between February and August 2002.

Method: The 16 adults and 20 children (age range 11 months to 17 years) were comprehensively assessed by allied health clinicians and child psychiatrists. All children were also assessed by the statutory child protection agency.

Results: There were very high levels of mood disturbance and post-traumatic symptoms in this population. All children had at least one parent with psychiatric illness. Of the 10 children aged 6-17 years, all (100%) fulfilled criteria for both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depression with suicidal ideation. Eight children (80%), including three pre-adolescents, had made significant attempts at self harm. Seven (70%) had symptoms of an anxiety disorder and half reported persistent severe somatic symptoms. The majority (80%) of preschool-age children were identified with developmental delay or emotional disturbance. Few clinically based recommendations were implemented.

Conclusions: Very high levels of psychopathology were found in child and adult asylum seekers. Much was attributable to traumatic experiences in detention and, for children, the impact of indefinite detention on their caregivers.

Implications: Multiple obstacles to adequate service provision are identified. Adequate clinical intervention and care was not possible. The impact on involved clinicians is discussed.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Psychiatry / ethics
  • Adult
  • Australia / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Child Psychiatry / ethics
  • Child, Preschool
  • Emigration and Immigration / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Family / psychology*
  • Family Health / ethnology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Life Change Events
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / classification
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Mental Health Services / ethics
  • Mental Health Services / standards
  • Mental Health Services / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Middle East / ethnology
  • Professional-Family Relations* / ethics
  • Public Policy*
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Refugees / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Refugees / psychology*
  • Treatment Outcome