Separating Families at the Border Will Multiply Child Trauma

Parents do not uproot their children to make a long and dangerous journey to an uncertain future in the U.S. unless the circumstances in their home country are so threatening that the risks of migration pale in comparison to more certain risks at home. They leave their homes, other family members, schools, churches and familiar communities because they feel they must.

In December 2017, the Trump Administration proposed a new policy of separating immigrant children from parents entering the U.S. illegally, as a means of discouraging or deterring immigrant families from Central America and other countries from coming to the U.S.

Although the administration has already engaged in this practice in some cases, this policy would alter the current standard, which has attempted to keep families intact while asylum issues are considered and addressed.

As a former psychotherapist, I saw first-hand the long-lasting effects of traumatic experience and disrupted attachments on children, adolescents and families. Having taught courses in child development, I know that development of the brain and the child are inextricably linked to environmental opportunities and dangers, and to the continuing presence of important relationships to mediate the environment.

Recovery from trauma and attachment loss is possible, but requires enormous time, effort and care. This knowledge tells me that a policy of separating families should sound an alarm for us all.

Advocates, immigration experts, academics and lawyers have voiced concerns regarding the issues of constitutionality, deterrence, negative effects and unanticipated consequences, alongside the undermining of the core American value of family unity.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – ratified by every country on the planet except Somalia, Sudan and the United States – specifies that children, including immigrant and refugee children, should be treated with dignity and respect and should not be exposed to conditions that may harm or traumatize them.

Family unity and reunification is one of the primary stated goals of the U.S. immigration system, found in many sections of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952. It is also a central theme of American identity. In Moore v. City of East Cleveland, the Supreme Court held that “the Constitution protects the sanctity of the family precisely because the institution of the family is deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition.”

The constitution does not allow the government to detain one asylum-seeking family for the sole purpose of deterring that action on the part of other families. And finally, through both United Nations conventions and protocols and U.S. law, migrants have rights not to be returned where their life or freedom would be threatened on the basis of race, religion, nationality, social group or opinion. If these factors exist, migrants can seek asylum if they can show “well-founded” fear of persecution.

The impact of such policies on children is severe. Stress is defined as the result of events or circumstances in which physical or psychological demands exceed our ability to cope. A critical buffer to the detrimental effects of stress is a protective relationship, such as with a parent who can provide comfort and a sense of safety.

Prolonged exposure to stress in the absence of a protective relationship causes the human stress response system to remain activated, preventing rest and recovery of the coping system, and the child’s ability to manage or regain the sense of safety necessary to move forward in life is severely compromised.

Trauma, the most extreme form of toxic stress, is the occurrence of events or situations in which one’s physical or psychological integrity is threatened (such as a natural disaster, an assault, or the violent or sudden loss of a loved one).

Leaving home, making a difficult journey, and arriving in a new country are circumstances that profoundly affect children. Separation from parents on the heels of these overwhelming experiences can be terrifying, and may have long-lasting effects.

Trauma exposure and disrupted attachment can have similar negative outcomes; when the two are combined, the negative effects on children’s development and functioning may be compounded.

Adversity early in life is associated with deficits in such important functions as cognitive performance, executive functions, and the processing of social and emotional stimuli, among others. The nature and severity of deficits is related to the nature of the trauma, the presence or absence of protective relationships, and the age and vulnerability of the child.

A 2010 study that examined effects of immigration raids on children ages 0-17 – during the first six months after the enforcement activities, and again after nine months – noted problems with basic functions such as eating and sleeping, constant crying, and widespread changes to behavior, school performance, and developmental reversal, or loss of developmental milestones that had been achieved prior to the separation from parents. In other words, the sudden and unexpected loss of parents not only impeded forward development, but sent children backwards on the developmental trajectory.

Traumatized and suffering children, disrupted or delayed development, long-term educational and behavioral problems — these are neither reasonable nor morally acceptable trade-offs for the unproven possibility that future families will be persuaded not to enter our country illegally.

The policy of separating families at the border must be abandoned in favor of alternatives that are humane, constitutional and supportive of family unity.

Wendy Smith is the Distinguished Continuing Scholar in Child Welfare at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. She is a retired psychotherapist and professor.

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