Forcibly separating young children from their parents is nothing short of state-sanctioned child abuse.
Housing them in cages, in abandoned stores, in tents and in all manner of kiddie Guantanamos is doubly cruel and damaging when families are seeking refuge from violence and unrest in their homelands.
The evidence that traumatic experiences have lasting impacts on the mental and physical health of children is incontrovertible.
“We know that family separation causes irreparable harm to children. This type of highly stressful experience can disrupt the building of children’s brain architecture. Prolonged exposure to serious stress – known as toxic stress – can lead to life-long health consequences,” said Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Yet, since April, the Trump administration in the United States has adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy and decreed that border-crossers should be criminally prosecuted. Criminal defendants cannot have children with them in jail, so parents and children are separated.
While the parents await their court hearings, the children are sent to “resettlement” facilities. In the first six weeks of the crackdown, nearly 2,000 children have been separated from their parents. At least 100 of those children are under the age of four.
After visiting one of the facilities in a border town in Texas, Dr. Kraft expressed her “outrage and dismay at its sweeping cruelty.”
She described seeing a toddler, her face splotched red from crying, her fists balled up in frustration, pounding on a play mat.
“No parent was there to scoop her up, no known and trusted adult to rub her back and soothe her sobs,” Dr. Kraft said.
Many similar stories have been recounted in recent days, including a breastfeeding baby ripped from her mother’s bosom, and parents being told their child would be taken for a bath, never to be seen again.
Yet the children in the media spotlight are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are close to 12,000 children and teens in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 100 facilities scattered around the country. They are shunted through a bureaucratic maze of institutional settings and eventually to foster homes, their futures uncertain. Sometimes their parents are deported without them.
What will the health impacts be?
We need not look any further than Canada for an answer to that question.
For decades, Canada has systematically separated First Nations and Inuit children from their parents with a series of colonial policies such as residential schools (sending children to boarding schools in the south), the Sixties Scoop (mass adoption of Indigenous children) and the ongoing Millennial Scoop (the routine seizure of First Nations children who are placed in foster homes).
In addition to the separation, many of the Indigenous children were abused, physically and sexually. (There are reports of abuse of migrant children too.)
The results have been horrific. The trauma, on individuals and communities, has been profound and multigenerational.
Children have a fundamental need to know they are safe. They need trusted adults – usually parents – in their lives to feel safe and secure.
Nothing can replace the comfort of a parent’s arms. You have to be parented to learn to become a parent.
When children are separated from their loved ones, especially forcibly, they are stressed, and that stress can be toxic.
Prolonged exposure to hormones like cortisol and adrenaline – the fight-or-flight hormones – leads to chronic inflammation and a host of related health problems.
The migrant children in custody – like the children of residential schools before them –experience trouble sleeping, eating, toileting; they are sad and scared.
Over the longer term, they can experience stunted emotional, intellectual and physical development.
Survivors of adverse childhood experiences like separation also have markedly higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, self-harm, substance abuse, suicide and heart disease.
Fear, uncertainty and feelings of abandonment can all have devastating health impacts, even for the resilient.
The Trump administration has, alternately, justified its harsh policies by saying they will serve as a deterrent to border-crossers and as a way of protecting children from the perils of those migrant journeys.
Ultimately, though, they are trying to achieve their policy goal – whatever it is – by inflicting anguish on children. That’s unconscionable.
Separation from parents is not only a blow to children’s health, but to their future. The harms that stem from this abuse will be profound and lasting.