Outcry over trauma of children separated from their parents at the US border

Families Crossing The Us Mexico Border On June 17 Are Taken To A Us Border Patrol Processing Centre In Mc Allen Texas
Families who crossed the US-Mexico border on June 17 were taken by the US Border Patrol to a processing centre in McAllen, Texas (US Customs and Border Protection)

Early childhood development

Experts have condemned the practice as "child abuse" and say the psychological damage could be long-lasting.

When children are forced to leave their homes in search of a better life, it can be a hugely stressful experience.

When they are then separated from their families, the psychological damage can be so traumatic that the effects will last a lifetime.

But that’s what happened to more than 2300 children – some as young as 18 months – who were taken away by United States officials when their parents were arrested at the border with Mexico.

News reporters said they saw young separated children being held in cages with concrete floors in detention centres. Audio recordings of children crying were broadcast by news organisations, including the BBC (hear clip below).

The “zero tolerance” practice targeting illegal immigration has been defended by President Donald Trump but condemned by the United Nations, human rights groups, medical experts and politicians from all sides.

The American Association of Pediatrics described it as “government-sanctioned child abuse” which may cause “irreparable harm” with “lifelong consequences”. That could include post-traumatic stress disorder and separation anxiety.

The UN’s human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said: “The thought that any state would seek to deter parents by inflicting such abuse on children is unconscionable.”

The US is the only country that has not ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child. Last night it also withdrew from the UN Human Rights Council.

Apart from the specific issue of children being detained at the US border, there has been a big increase in the number of refugee and migrant children moving alone around the world.

new report from the UN refugees agency UNHCR for World Refugee Day today revealed at least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were recorded in 80 countries in 2015-2016, up from 66,000 in 2010-2011. 

But the true figure of children moving alone is likely to be much higher. 

The experience of being separated from their parents in a foreign country could be particularly devastating for young children.

With 90% of brain development happening in the first five years of life, exposure to prolonged periods of stress can cause a child’s stress response to go into overdrive. That can change the brain architecture, leading to physical and mental health issues later in life.

Our commitment to early childhood development and young people in foster care compels us to speak out when children are being exposed to unnecessary and irreversible trauma. Peter Laugharn, President of Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Jack P Shonkoff, director of the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, said: “When the stress system stays activated for a significant period of time it can have a wear and tear effect biologically. The younger you are, the more serious the threat.”

Harvard researchers have found that the more adverse the experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression. 

A report by Theirworld in 2016 on the effects of humanitarian emergencies on young children said that traumatic experiences – such as being separated from family – can “lead children to experience numerous psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, lack of trust in others, nightmares, bedwetting, memory loss, aggression and post-traumatic stress disorder”.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation supports Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign – which calls for investment in children under five – and our work on early childhood development.

Its President Peter Laugharn said: “We are committed to improving the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged people throughout the world. We echo the deep concerns of many Americans and our partners on the ground regarding the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents entering the US along the Mexican border.

Us Separating Families 1

Maria, 16, from Honduras, travels north with her younger siblings, hoping to cross the border to the United States to reunite with her family (UNICEF / Ojeda)

“Our commitment to early childhood development and young people in foster care compels us to speak out when children are being exposed to unnecessary and irreversible trauma. Children should not be detained and families belong together.

US government officials said yesterday that 2342 children were separated from 2206 parents at the US-Mexico border between May 5 and June 9.

The children are removed because they cannot be sent to the federal jails where their parents are held. Officials were unable to say how many have been reunited with their families or placed with “sponsors”.

President Trump said: “I don’t want children taken away from parents. When you prosecute the parents for coming in illegally, which should happen, you have to take the children away.” 

But UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said: “Children must not be traumatised by being separated from their parents. Family unity must be preserved.”

Two of the top American business groups, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, condemned the separation policy yesterday and called for it to be scrapped immediately.

“This practice is cruel and contrary to American values,” Cisco Systems Inc Chief Executive Chuck Robbins, who chairs the group’s immigration committee, said in a statement.

  • Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign and our work on early childhood development is supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

JUNE 22 NOTE: Following the global outcry, President Trump announced he has reversed the policy and signed an executive order that promises to keep families together in migrant detentions. However, this does not apply to the families already separated.

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