The travesty that was the Trump administration’s zero tolerance illegal immigration policy resulted in mass separations of children, including infants, from their parents.
In response to a worldwide outcry opposing such human rights violation, the administration revised its policy, assuring that families fleeing life-threatening violence and seeking asylum at the U.S. Mexican border, would no longer be separated, but confined for a brief period, before likely being deported because of “criminal” illegal entry into our country.
Even if Trump and the policy’s architects choose to ignore scientific facts about the impact of child abduction and parental loss on vulnerable children, it is hoped that all other Americans take a sober, objective look at the neurodevelopmental, and psychological impact such experience can have on the child, while also considering the immorality attached to child abuse of any kind.
Informing our observations, and opinions is our collective professional experience of 75 years serving children in foster care.
In conducting psychological and trauma assessments of many hundreds of abused, terrified, and neglected children, we have repeatedly found one common aspect of their trauma experiences. When asked to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to them, they characteristically failed to mention the time they may have been severely beaten, or raped, or the time they witnessed a drunken parent violently attack their other parent, or the time they were tied up and deprived of food. Instead, they almost universally lamented about the day they were taken away from their parents as being the worst thing that ever happened to them.
In some respects, the experiences of children torn from their parents at the border parallel those of the children we’ve served within the foster care system.
Children are traumatized, when they suddenly find themselves removed from the most important person in the world, the parent with whom a life-sustaining bond existed, the parent who had been the guarantor of love, nurturance and protection.
Sudden loss of a parent is traumatizing for a child, who experiences such an event as a threat to his or her very existence. The youngest children cannot imagine how they can survive without the person on whom they have been totally dependent since birth.
This involves much more than simply having to cope with the loss of a loved one; it is comparable to a life or death struggle which must be faced with little or no coping skills or resources to draw upon.
Whereas the foster child likely has an inkling that separation might occur, the refugee child is totally taken by surprise. The foster child has had the misfortune of having lived within a dysfunctional family, featuring such horrors as physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect, and exposure to domestic violence, drug/alcohol abuse, and/or criminal activity. Such experiences are traumatizing in their own right, but defenses have likely been erected, and some degree of adaptation has often taken place.
The foster child has the advantage of anticipating the possibility of separation, whereas the refugee child is blind-sided. The refugee child may also have experienced traumatic events which necessitated the family flight from danger, but at least there existed the reassuring presence of one or both functioning parents.
Once placement in foster care occurs, children usually get to see their parent soon afterward, and explanations of what happened and what will happen next are offered.
The same may not be said for refugee children, who have no idea of the whereabouts of their parents, and who live with the uncertainty that they may never see their parents again.
The developing brain is ground zero for the tragedy that unfolds when a child is severely traumatized. Normal brain development is interrupted and sidetracked in favor of automatic biological defenses that are set in motion.
As part of the alarm reaction, hormones are released which serve to insulate the child victim from physical and psychic pain. They are much needed in the moment, but they can disrupt brain development if the traumatized state does not soon subside.
Parts of the brain which support memory and the integration of experience are compromised to the extent that adaptive function may be impeded for months, years or a lifetime. Such alteration in brain structure and function serves as the foundation for debilitating psychological conditions, such as PTSD, and Depression.
Additionally, it is edifying to hear what traumatized children have to say for themselves.
When asked to reveal the worst thing that ever happened to them, children in foster care tell about the night that the police came, and they were hiding under the bed. They recall how mother was trying to hold onto them when the police arrested her, and how they kept remembering their mother screaming as she was taken away.
Clearly, the most traumatizing event for the thousands of children in foster care whom we have seen is the emotional torment of separation from parent. It is the single most detrimental psychological blow to a child, even when the act of separation, as in the case of foster care placements, is conducted in the best interests of children to protect them from further harm.
Comparable to this are the tragic experiences of immigrant children, mercilessly separated from their parents at the border. They were typically told by their parents that they would be heading for a safer and better life, and although the trip would be long and scary, there was no need to worry because they would all be together.
They were totally unprepared for the horrible nightmare awaiting them at the border. They will likely be forever tormented by memories of everyone screaming and crying, and their total sense of bewilderment and helplessness.
Predictably, they ask themselves what is going to happen to them, and to their parents, and wonder whether they will ever see their family again. Their sense of security betrayed, they feel numb and paralyzed. There is no one to whom they can turn for help.
Children inexplicably ripped away from their parents face lifelong traumatic sequelae, namely pervasive feelings of sadness, loss, and anger, unbearable anxiety, chronic feelings of not belonging, and a life marked by insecure, unhealthy relationships.
The mindless lack of empathy and immorality underlying the mass separations and prolonged detentions at the hands of the Trump Administration need to be forever repudiated, and the reunification of these migrant children with their families needs to occur immediately.
The resolution of asylum claims of families currently being confined in detention centers needs to be expedited on an emergency timetable. Adequate mental health services aimed at mitigating the adverse consequences of trauma need to be provided.
We in the mental health field demand a permanent end to this abominable practice of government sanctioned child abuse and ask that these child victims and their families not be forgotten.
Leonard T. Gries, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in East Hills, and Briarwood. He has provided clinical services for children in foster care since 1979, and he is Executive Director of the Institute for Emotional Health. He is author of “Gregory of Zimbabwe. A True Story of Overcoming Child Abuse and the Scandal of Diplomatic Immunity.”
Mary Beth Andrews, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Rockaway Park and Great Neck. Her distinguished career as senior staff psychologist, in the evaluation and treatment of children in foster care with voluntary child welfare agencies, began in 1983.