Lessons From The Past

Research suggests that family separation, particularly when children are separated from their primary caregivers – most often mothers, will cause enduring harm.  In World War II, London children were less upset by the actual bombings than by being evacuated to the country as a protection against it.

Worried that German bombs would obliterate London and other major cities, the British government sent children, pregnant women and the mothers of young children away from perceived danger zones and into “reception areas” in the countryside.

The government provided transportation and volunteers provided the housing. The conditions weren’t terrible: unaccompanied children were not “warehoused” or imprisoned. Instead they were placed with families who had volunteered to open their homes in exchange for a small sum. Some took their responsibilities narrowly, providing food, bedding and nothing more, while others took children into their hearts as well as their homes.

Even though the evacuations were undertaken to protect children, being away from parents — and having no idea what happened to them — was deeply traumatic.  Evacuated children experienced the best outcomes when host families provided consistent loving care, enabling a new attachment to be formed, while fostering frequent contact between children and their parents.

These were exceptions to a deeply traumatic experience for most children. Expecting rosy-cheeked youngsters thrilled to have a rural holiday, receiving households often received ill, ragged, fearful kids instead. Younger children were afraid because they did not know what was going on; older children were afraid because they did.  Behavioral problems, whether constant crying, aggressive acting out or mute refusal were commonly noted after the children came to stay.

Children who endured prolonged separations from their primary caregivers were observed to experience the highest levels of trauma. Children who formed deep emotional attachments to and trust in the adult caregiving figures in their lives were better equipped for survival, but trauma was a highly likely outcome for all.