Why Children Should Not Be Taken Away from Their Families

It is hard for me to believe that, while the vast majority of Americans are disturbed by the sight of immigrant parents and children being summarily separated, and babies being remanded to group care, some, evidently, are not. Yesterday, results of a Quinnipiac poll showed while 66% of Americans reject the policy, 27% favor it.

The policy has been called child abuse, torture, inhumane. Many have claimed that it will do irreparable harm to the families. Others have referred to the children’s centers as being like summer camps and have even cast doubt on the idea that these separations are causing distress, suggesting that the wailing, crying babies and children are child actors.

But what does science say about summarily separating children from parents? We have excellent science on this subject, inspired by the many unanticipated and unwanted separations of children from parents during World War II. We know from studies inspired by observations of children and babies separated from parents that babies who receive adequate hygienic care and food, but no affection, become more vulnerable to illness, and some of them die. Lack of affection causes developmental neurological problems as well.

The high numbers of children separated from their parents during the war inspired a great deal of research on attachment, separation, and loss, by John Bowlby and by James and Joyce Robertson, who during World War II, worked with Anna Freud in the wartime nurseries of Hampstead. Later, the Robertsons continued to study separation. Still later, attachment was studied extensively by Mary Ainsworth.

The Robertsons developed a knowledge base of what happens to children separated from parents in times of trouble and crisis. They not only observed children, but they made several compelling—and heartbreaking—films. A very compelling film that is highly relevant to the results of separation of young children from parents with placement in group care is called “John, aged 17 months for nine days in a residential nursery.” John’s parents believed he would get good care in a nursery setting while his mother was in a hospital giving birth to a sibling. John was placed in a nursery where there was good food, a clean environment, many toys, trained caregivers, and other children about his age. The ratio of children to caregivers was not unreasonable for a group care setting. But over nine days, he went from being an obviously happy, well-developed child who could be helped, fed, and comforted by the staff to a child who refused food, seldom played, and simply looked depressed. He went from a child who was easily comforted to one who hardly responded to attempts to comfort him. His behavior after nine days looked like a person in despair. This is the kind of transition we can expect from many, of the young children summarily separated from their parents in a time of transition, and placed with strangers—even if they are provided the best available physical care, food, and a hygienic environment. John was fortunate to be reunited with his parents after nine days. But where is the plan to reunite parents and children separated at the border?

The Robertsons’ films about children showed children separated from parents at first protesting, then despairing, and finally detaching from others. The films led to revolutionary changes in pediatric inpatient care, from parents being only occasionally welcome to visit, to parents being part of the caretaking team.

Perhaps it is time to show these films to the 27% of Americans who think separating children from their parents at the border is a good idea. Perhaps it will take 100% of us to stop this madness.

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