What happens to children when they are separated from their parents against their will for a few minutes or a few hours, a few days or weeks or months or years? Nothing good, says Benedict Carey:
Some youngsters retreat entirely, their eyes empty, bodies limp, their isolation a wall of defiance. Others cannot sit still: watchful, hyperactive, ever uncertain.Some compulsively jump into the laps of strangers, or grab their legs and hold on for life. And some children, somehow, move past a sudden separation from their parents, tapping a well of resilience.
The Trump administration is claiming today that more than 2,000 children remain separated from their parents — a cruel act of punishment for mothers and fathers and children desperately fleeing unmentionable crime, violence, and oppression in their home countries. Most come from the “Northern Triangle” of Central American nations immediately south of the Mexican border — Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras — legally seeking asylum in the “land of the free” at designated ports of entry or making their way across illegally at unofficial border crossings.
As the American Academy of Pediatrics made clear in its 2017 policy statement, Detention of Immigrant Children, children should never be separated from their parent or caregiver under any circumstance unless the child’s safety is thought to be endangered by the parent or caregiver. There is compelling scientific evidence supporting the notion that this misguided and indefensible policy is equivalent to state-sponsored child abuse:
Highly stressful experiences, including family separation, can cause irreparable harm to lifelong development by disrupting a child’s brain architecture. Toxic stress, which is caused by prolonged exposure to heightened stress, has detrimental short- and long-term health effects.When children are separated from their parents, it removes the buffer of a supportive adult or caregiver to help mitigate stress and protect against substantial impacts on their health that can contribute to chronic conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and heart disease.
William Wan gets clinical:
Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit messages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.“The effect is catastrophic,” said Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.
That’s not all:
Nelson has studied the neurological damage from child-parent separation — work that he said has often reduced him to tears.In 2000, the Romanian government invited Nelson and a team of researchers into its state orphanages to advise them on a humanitarian crisis that the country’s previous policies had created.As the children grew older, Nelson and his colleagues began finding unsettling differences in their brains.Those separated from their parents at a young age had much less white matter, which is largely made up of fibers that transmit information throughout the brain, as well as much less gray matter, which contains the brain-cell bodies that process information and solve problems.The activity in the children’s brains was much lower than expected. “If you think of the brain as a lightbulb,” Nelson said, “it’s as though there was a dimmer that had reduced them from a 100-watt bulb to 30 watts.”The children, who had been separated from their parents in their first two years of life, scored significantly lower on IQ tests later in life. Their fight-or-flight response system appeared permanently broken. Stressful situations that would usually prompt physiological responses in other people — increased heart rate, sweaty palms — would provoke nothing in the children.
Aswell says long-term mental health problems can arise, even if separation is of short duration:
Extensive studies all agree that even short separations from parents can cause toxic stress, which in turn can lead to long-term problems that span from PTSD, anxiety, and depression to heart disease, stroke, and substance abuse issues. This type of stress can also affect learning and language development — and experts point out that many of these children are already battling trauma from the living conditions that caused them to flee their homeland as well as the journey to the border.
There is a long road ahead for these children who have been forced to endure the inhumane treatment of family separation that no loving mother and father would ever be expected to tolerate. They will need love, reassurance, patience, and lots and lots of therapy. And with all that, for many of these kids, Carey says, there is reasonable hope for recovery:
For all the dislocation, strangeness and pain of being separated forcibly from parents, many children can and do recover, said Mary Dozier, a professor of child development at the University of Delaware.“Not all of them — some kids never recover,” Dr. Dozier said. “But I’ve been amazed at how well kids can do after institutionalization if they’re able to have responsive and nurturing care afterward.”“The earlier they’re out, the better,” she added. “The most important thing for these children now is what we do next.”
What we do next is reunify children and parents as quickly (as humanely) as possible so recovery can begin. Only then can we finally come to grips with this national disgrace.
We can do better than this, can’t we?