Separation – The Damage

Just a reminder that this situation continues and children who have been separated from their parents at the border are NOT being returned to them but placed for adoption.  The parents are sent back to their home country and the children are taken away from them.  This does lasting psychological damage that will stay with these victims into their adult years.

Millions of years of evolution have gone into erecting the deepest of connections: that between mother and child.

That primal bond—when forcibly shattered or disrupted—can be devastating for both parent and child, according to scientists.  Though experts have attempted to dissuade the White House from continuing this policy, children continue to not be reunited with their original parents.

Back in 2018, the American Psychological Association sent a letter to President Trump with this statement – “Based on empirical evidence of the psychological harm that children and parents experience when separated, we implore you to reconsider this policy and commit to the more humane practice of housing families together pending immigration proceedings to protect them from further trauma.” Many other organizations, including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, have released similar statements.  All to no avail.  Falling on deaf ears and closed minds and hard hearts.

Back in May 2018, when Jeff Sessions was still the US Attorney General, he  announced that the Department of Homeland Security would refer 100% of illegal immigrants crossing the border for criminal prosecution in federal court. Any minors accompanying them were to be taken into government custody.  And that is precisely what happened.  Since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, all migrants are being kept in squalid conditions on the Mexican side of the border which, as bad as that is, is still far better than taking children from their parents.

In the past, immigrants charged with this misdemeanor were able to stay in shelters with their children while waiting for further direction.  Under the current administration, they were separated – and even when President Trump issued an executive order in 2018 to end the separation of families at the border – nothing actually changed.  It was all a “for show” piece of paper.

It is a known fact that babies and other young children were living for an extended period of time in “tender age” shelters in South Texas.  Then, the government simply lost track of them.  Really ?  Hard to believe there is no record of their disposition – unless it was deliberately destroyed.  That would actually not surprise me at all.

“I would definitely consider [this] a traumatic experience with long-term consequences,” said Chandra Ghosh Ippen, associate director and dissemination director of the Child Trauma Research Program at the University of California, San Francisco and the Earth Trauma Treatment Network.

When a child is separated from his or her parents under chaotic circumstances, a monsoon of stress hormones (like cortisol) floods the brain and the body. These hormones are important for navigating stress in the short-term. However, in high doses, these chemicals—if hyperactive for a prolonged period of time—can increase the risk of lasting, destructive complications like heart disease, diabetes, and even some forms of cancer. In addition, multiples instances of trauma early in life can lead to mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

On top of this immediate biological response to separation is the frightening experience of watching a caregiver undergo severe emotional upheaval.

“When a child sees a parent frightened, it is extremely threatening,” said Lisa Berlin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and co-author on a study published in 2011 examining the effects of mother-child separation on children under two years old. Regarding that study, Berlin notes that some of the participants experienced planned separations that were done “in an orderly way.” By contrast, she says, the situation of the migrants at the Mexican border was “chaos.”

The conditions under which these undocumented minors were living were varied and unclear, but when ProPublica obtained an audio, it appeared that the children were under duress.

“It sounds like, from what we’re hearing, that there aren’t people there to help console them and help them self-soothe, which would be something that would be really key to help offset those biological responses [to stress],” said Erin C. Dunn, a social and psychiatric epidemiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Genomic Medicine.

The situation is a case study in what psychologists call “attachment,” and it’s the reason why children who are separated from their primary caregivers desperately need mental health counseling.

“In early childhood, young children believe that their parents can protect them from anything, and that’s actually what allows them to feel safe enough to explore the world,” Ippen said. “When that safe base is disrupted, you might see a child who is very anxious, or who is clingy, or you might see a child who goes off and recklessly explores the world. This is the crux of attachment theory.”

Attachment theory is a set of ideas developed in the early 1950s by British psychiatrist John Bowlby. “It’s an explanation of why we are the way we are,” Berlin said. “[Bowlby] said that a big determining factor has to do with how much we can rely on our primary caregiver when we really, really need them. We need them for physical safety and because we’re young and immature and we can’t make sense of our world without their help.”

A reminder. Thanks to PBS and NOVA for most of this blog with my own perspectives added.  This is also what happens to adoptees taken from their original parents and placed with strangers who raise them.  This is why adoption trauma is a real thing.

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