The Devastation of Separating Migrant Parents and Children

Separating and detaining migrant parents and children is profoundly harmful.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past 25 years working in war zones and refugee communities with survivors of civil war, genocide, and state terror. Everywhere I’ve worked, I’ve witnessed the powerful role that parents play in protecting their children from the horrors of war and the chaos of flight and displacement. I’ve been amazed at the ways in which parents, despite their own profound distress, manage to comfort their children, ease their fears and sadness, and keep them as safe as humanly possible.

The most brutal governments and militias know that to devastate parents and traumatize children, a simple approach is to tear them apart. Imprison parents, detain children, don’t allow them to communicate with each other, don’t hint at the possibility of reunification. For parents, there’s nothing more devastating than the loss of their children. And when you forcibly remove children from their parents, you rip away the secure base that allows children to feel safe in the world despite the dangers that may surround them. In the absence of comfort, and facing both the loss of their parents and their own frightening detention, their young bodies and minds can get locked into a state of prolonged alarm. The brain’s threat system gets flipped into a permanent state of activation, flooding the body with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. That’s okay for a very short-term emergency; the stress response system evolved to help us shift quickly into survival mode, and then switch off again as soon as we’re safe, so that we can return to normal functioning. States of prolonged distress, however, can be extremely harmful, leading to an erosion of our emotional and physical health, eventually even endangering our survival. Among children, this state of prolonged threat can lead to what researchers call “toxic stress”. The stress hormones wear down the body and mind, weakening the immune system, and causing lasting damage to the brain. Children may experience recurrent nightmares, regress developmentally, lose their appetite, and engage in maladaptive coping responses—desperate attempts to self-soothe, ranging from aggression to self-harm, anything to numb the state of fear.

If you want to see what I’m talking about, to get a visceral feel for it, just log in to Facebook, Twitter, or the social media of your choice. You’ll immediately be confronted by stories, sounds, and images of immigrant children weeping in fear and despair, having recently been torn away from their parents by US immigration officers and locked away in detention centers, their parents arrested and charged as criminals. You can hear the actual cries of young children separated from their parents and placed in detention, and see the horror on the faces of others watching their parents being detained. It’s terrifying and heartbreaking.

Dr. Collen Craft, President of the American Academy of Pediatricians, calls the practice “nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.” That’s exactly what it is. It’s state-sponsored, government-directed harm to children. In the social service and medical professions, we live by the mantra “Do No Harm.” The US government now functions according to precisely the opposite mandate: Harm intensely, as a deterrent to undocumented immigration.

The President of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Jessica Henderson Daniel, likewise condemned the policy: “The administration’s policy of separating children from their families as they attempt to cross into the United States without documentation is not only needless and cruel, it threatens the mental and physical health of both the children and their caregivers.” The American Psychiatric Association and the American College of Physicians have also taken powerful stands against this destructive practice, warning that the harm being done to children will likely follow them throughout their lives.

It’s important to consider the intentional nature of the harm being caused by the current practice of separating parents and children and detaining both indefinitely. The toxic stress being generated among so many children, some just toddlers, is not an unfortunate collateral effect of this horrific practice. It’s an intentional outcome meant to serve as a warning to any parents who might still consider making the perilous journey north to escape gang warfare and poverty in Central America: Think twice: this could happen to you and your children.

Repressive governments use terror to achieve their ends. I’ve seen it everywhere my work has taken me, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guatemala to Sri Lanka, and a host of other places along the way. I never dreamed I’d see it in the country of my birth.

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