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Family Separation Is Harmful to Children’s Health

UPDATE: President Trump signed an executive order which would end the practice of separating minor children from their parents at the border. Families USA is analyzing the impact of the executive order, but continues to call on Congress to pass legislation to ban this shameful practice. 

The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy went into effect on April 6, separating children from parents who arrive without documentation—including those legally seeking asylum–at the U.S. border. Between April 19 and May 31, 2018, nearly 2,000 children were separated from their parents under the new policy. Although not the first administration to separate immigrant children from their parents, the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy means that the practice of separating families has grown dramatically and will continue to grow, overwhelming an already precarious system, with devastating consequences for children, families, neighborhoods, and communities across the country.

Government Agencies Are Not Equipped to Care for Thousands of Children Separated from their Families

Notably, this policy involves two different federal agencies with two different systems of detention facilities and placement. First, once apprehended at the border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) under the Department of Homeland Security removes children from their parents and places them in a CBP facility. Then—in principle within 72 hours–CBP transfers them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for finding homes for unaccompanied children who enter the country without parents.

Stories about poor and unsafe conditions at CBP facilities are not uncommon. Recent stories and testimonials about the conditions in CBP processing centers paint a grim picture, with images emerging of facilities that hold children in fenced enclosures with only concrete floors and large foil sheets scattered to be used as blankets.  Although only intended to be temporary holding stations, we have heard that in some cases, children are being held for longer periods in these facilities. According to a recent report, about 550 children are in CBP custody, and of those, nearly 300 have spent more than 72 hours in these facilities – half of them under the age of 12.

Once transferred to ORR, children are placed in a new government facility where they are under staff supervision at all times. Children who are separated from their parents spend an average of 56 days in ORR shelters. ORR is responsible for identifying a parent, close or distant relative, or a family friend who can safely and appropriately care for children while their immigration cases proceed. But until a sponsor is identified, ORR houses children in a network of 100 facilities in 14 states. According to reports, ORR facilities are now operating at 95 percent capacity, housing as many as 11,200 children – a notable increase since April when the zero tolerance policy went into effect.

We and others with experience in early childhood, child welfare, and immigration policy have longstanding concerns about the care children receive in ORR custody. ORR is not a child welfare agency and is not equipped to care for or manage the placement of children. Now ORR is faced with the added responsibility of finding placements for the thousands of children the government has forcibly taken from their families. The zero-tolerance policy is straining an already overwhelmed system and it is unclear whether ORR has adequate staff, resources or training to provide developmentally-appropriate care – including routine medical, dental and mental health services – to all children in its custody.

Multiple news outlets are now confirming that babies and the youngest children are being forcibly separated from their parents at the border and sent to at least three “tender age” shelters in South Texas where visitors describe “play rooms of crying preschool-age children in crisis.” By taking babies and young children away from their parents and placing them in these facilities, the government is essentially forcibly institutionalizing the very young, a practice long ago recognized as inappropriate for young children by our child welfare system. We expect more young children to come into ORR custody as a result of this policy, and ORR is not equipped to care for their needs. In general, these facilities are not licensed to care for babies and young children, nor should they.

Another new policy is making it more difficult to reunite children with their families once in custody and leading to longer stays in ORR shelters. The Trump administration now requires family members who want to take custody of unaccompanied children to be fingerprinted. This information is shared with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This means that undocumented family members are much less likely to come forward as sponsors for fear of arrest and deportation, and children will continue to languish in government facilities for an even more extended time period.

Family Separation Poses Significant Health Risks for Children

A large body of research looking at early childhood adversity and later health outcomes tells us that early adversity can have lasting impacts on one’s health and well-being. We know that when strong, frequent or prolonged adverse experiences are endured without adult support, stress can be said to be “toxic” and lead to disruptions in the child’s stress regulatory, neuroendocrine and immune systems and brain architecture. For a young child, separation from a parent can have both immediate and long-term consequences. In the short-term, children may exhibit loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, regressive behaviors, physical symptoms such as stomachaches and detachment — all common signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in young children. In the longer term, family separation can have negative impacts on both the emotional and physical health and well-being of separated parents and children.

This connection is not simple. As a developmental psychologist who has spent years studying resiliency in children exposed to trauma, the research indicates that children are incredibly resilient, show a tremendous ability to thrive despite adversity and that supportive early relationships are critical and can buffer the effects of stress. Yet the absence of such relationships – as we see in cases where children are abruptly separated from their parents — can imperil the brain’s capacities for managing stress and its recovery. In that sense family separation poses a double health risk — the trauma itself and the loss of a primary source of protection to help the child cope with that trauma. And longer periods of separation lead to greater psychological distress and increased risk for anxiety, depression and other disruptions in development.

Our nation’s child welfare system is increasingly built around the evidence-based and practice-confirmed finding that children do best when they remain with their families. Federal and state child welfare policy has been reformed around the principle that removing a child from his or her parents should only happen in extreme cases and removal from home itself is often a traumatic event. The experience of separation, even one as brief a few hours can result in distress. For the very young, forced separation is highly stressful and can have lasting impacts. These lessons are even more applicable in the current immigration context: early childhood separation, especially one that is involuntary, with no opportunity to prepare, in a chaotic and unfamiliar environment is certainly traumatic for a child.

Current Status of the Zero Tolerance Policy

As stories of families separated at the border flood news outlets, several GOP members of Congress, including Senators Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), Susan Collins (R- Maine), James Lankford (R- Oklahoma), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) and Representative Will Hurd (R-Texas) have stepped forward, joining Democrats in calling for an immediate end to the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance policy. Two Republican Governors, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker have announced that they will not deploy National Guard resources near the U.S. Mexico border, citing the Administration’s immigration policy. And outrage continues to build. All four former first ladies have, along with current First Lady Melania Trump joined in expressing horror at what is happening at the border. Former First Lady Laura Bush called the practice “cruel” and “immoral.” She went on to say that “our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso.” And she’s right. ORR should not be in the business of caring for children.

Meanwhile, House Republicans are attempting to move two immigration bills — the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act (the “Ryan bill”) and H.R. 4760, the Securing America’s Future Act (the “Goodlatte bill”) — which deal primarily with separate immigration issues. Neither of these bills outlaw family separation. At the same time, Democrats have been trying to advance legislation to stop family separation. The Keep Families Together Act, introduced by Senator Feinstein (D-CA) aims to keep undocumented families together. There are also similar bills introduced in the House. These include:

  • The Help Separated Families Act of 2018, which would make policy changes to keep children of detained or deported parents united with their families.
  • The HELP Separated Children Act, intended to protect the safety and well-being of minor children who have been left alone and vulnerable after their parents have been arrested or detained by U.S. immigration authorities.

Both introduced by Representative Royball-Allard (D-CA), these bills are unlikely to advance but raise the importance of keeping families together in the midst of immigration enforcement activities.

What we know without a doubt is that separating children from their parents is harmful to children, traumatic for families and goes against our basic American values. This Trump administration must stop this cruel practice and instead put the best interest of children and families ahead of its own political agenda. The president can and should immediately end this practice of family separation.