The separation of immigrant children from their families is unethical and illegal

Posted by on in Attachment, Blog, Therapy, Trauma | 0 comments

I must speak up about what is happening at the US/Mexico border right now.  Thousands of children have been forcibly taken from their families and detained as part of a new policy enacted by the Trump administration.

I am a therapist in private practice, and I specialize in trauma recovery.

Before I became a therapist, I spent a lot of time in school.  Years and years.  And I got to participate in a bit of research and write about what I had learned.

Here are a few relevant points:

  • Childhood trauma has a lifelong impact that shapes physical, emotional, and relational health.
  • Sudden or prolonged separation from a caregiver is a form of childhood trauma.
  • One of the key factors that softens the impact of trauma is the presence of community.

Childhood trauma has deep and lasting impact throughout the lifetime.  While recovery is possible, it often requires resources not available to marginalized populations.

I have studied many different different forms of childhood abuse and neglect.  Sudden or prolonged separation from a caregiver is a form of childhood trauma.

This is especially true if the separation is out of the parent’s control, if the separation is not facilitated in a relational and calm manner, and if the child has no context for understanding when the separation will end.

Certainly, using outright deceit to trick parents into separating from their children qualifies as traumatic.   I don’t think I need to elaborate on how warehousing children in cages or tents in the middle of a Texas summer is inhumane.

The policy to criminalize these immigrants is terrible.  The execution of the policy is somehow even worse.

What is happening at the US/Mexico border is a human rights violation on a massive scale.

These experiences impact young children and even infants.  Explicit, chronological memory is not the only form of memory, so saying that a child is too young to have memories of a traumatic event is patently false.  There is plenty of research that points to the impact of implicit, body-based memory and learning that begins even before birth.

One of the biggest predictors of strong outcome after trauma is the presence of community.  I am sure you can see the awful irony of this situation—community and stability is the very thing being stripped away from these children and their families.

Who is with you before, during, and after a traumatic experience can make the difference between a rapid recovery and lifelong PTSD.  

These children are surrounded by staff who have been barred from picking them up as a matter of policy.  They are in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by other scared kids.  This is a recipe for a mental health disaster.

This policy and its ham-fisted execution represents multiple forms of abuse and trauma.

There is the trauma of separation,

the trauma of displacement,

the trauma of discrimination and oppression,

the trauma of not-knowing (about duration, reunification, and what happens in the meantime?),

the trauma of uncomforted suffering due to policies about not picking up or touching the detained children,

the trauma of going from frying pan to fire– for those seeking political asylum and instead finding more oppression and trauma at their destination.

Even when Child Protective Services must separate a child from a caregiver for the child’s own safety, they often rely on kinship care—turning to extended family wherever possible to place the child, so that they remain in a familiar environment.

Many of these immigrants have family already in the United States.  Why isn’t this a part of the policy?

Everything about this policy and its execution is damaging and traumatic.

This is about children getting caught in the political crossfire of a punitive piece of policy that is meant to drive the point home to brown people that you are not welcome here.

It is about racism and oppression and toxic nationalism.

As many have already pointed out, we already have so many shameful chapters in American history where children and families have been fragmented, sold, parceled out, rehabilitated or contained in internment camps.

I have spent thousands of hours sitting with clients in therapy, helping them heal from childhood trauma.  What is happening right now at the border is trauma on a grand scale, something that will have lasting impact on the lives of these children, their future children, and their parents.

We are are in the midst of writing another shameful chapter of American history.

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”    -Elie Wiesel

The time to act is now.

I know it can feel overwhelming to think about.  Don’t collapse into inaction.

What can you do?  Quite a lot, actually:

Call your senators

Donate, volunteer, and sign petitions


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