Separating migrant children from parents risks long-term effects, doctors warn
Prominent pediatricians are warning that the trauma that migrant children are experiencing from being forcibly separated from their parents could cause the children lifelong psychological damage.
Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says research has shown that when children are separated from caregivers they love and trust, they can experience something called toxic stress.
Kraft explained to CTV News Channel that toxic stress results when children experience high levels of stress hormones for a prolonged period of time.
These “fight-or-flight” stress hormones lead to inflammation and can cause heart damage, as well as disrupt the development of the children’s brains, Kraft said.
“So for very young children, this experience might disrupt their ability to speak and language,” she said from Mission Viejo, Calif.
It can also upset their ability to trust and form emotional bonds with others. The longer a child is under this intense stress, the greater the risk for these developments, research has shown.
The AAP has been speaking out against the detention of children since early 2017, and has increased its opposition in the months since U.S. border authorities began separating migrant children from their parents.
It released a policy statement in 2017 in which it contends that parents or primary caregivers should never by separated from their children unless they are at risk of causing them harm.
Not only does the detention risk long-term psychological and physical health effects, the children lose the sole caregivers who could help them cope emotionally.
Dr. Rachel Kronick, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at McGill University in Montreal, said that in the past, experts have observed “very dramatic and profound psychological and psychiatric reactions to the toxic stress of being separated from a parent.”
“The thing we know very clearly from the medical literature is the more a child experiences toxic stress and trauma … the more long-lasting, the more severe the effects,” she told CTV News. “So for these children who are coming as asylum seekers who have already lived through violence and horrendous adversity to then experience a separation or detention, we know that has long-term effects in terms of their development, their capacity to develop relationships, even cognition.”
Kraft has visited one of the facilities where children are being held after being taken from their migrant parents at the Texas-Mexican border.
She says she remembers visiting the facility’s toddler room and seeing one child who was sobbing uncontrollably and beating her fists against the mat. She says the hardest part of the visit was that she had been told that she was not permitted to approach any of the children to try to comfort them.
“The devastating part of all of this is that the workers who were there and the doctors who came to visit all knew what was wrong: she needed her mother and she didn’t have her,” she said
“(The staff) told us they were not allowed to pick her up to hold her. And this poor child was just sobbing. And all of us, all of the adults in the room who should be protecting her, couldn’t help her.”
Kraft said the experience left her wanting to speak out more, and to be the voice for children who don’t have a voice.
“Once I saw that, I couldn’t stay silent. I had to talk about what was going on,” she said. “Who are we as a country to do this to young children? Who are we as a country to use children as pawns?”
While some who support the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy say that younger children are unlikely to remember the parental separation, others disagree.
Raven Sinclair is a professor of social work at the University of Regina; she is also a ‘60s Scoop survivor who was taken away from her family at the age of four. She says she will never forget that day.
“I still remember it very, very clearly. I have a lot of memories that are intact,” Sinclair told CTV News Channel Wednesday from Saskatoon.
“I know I went into a state of shock, and then post-traumatic stress that sustained for about 20 years.”
Sinclair didn’t see her mother again for 22 years, and though she says she learned to adjust to her new life, she realized as an adult that she was carrying the effects of the trauma she endured at a young age.
“In psychology terms, I think I probably had to contend with an attachment disorder, the inability to really get close with anyone and to trust adults, in particular,” she said, adding she sought and received therapy for her pain.
The AAP is not the only group expressing its concerns for the long-term wellbeing of these detained children.
The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine says it too “strongly condemns” the “inhumane” separation of children and adolescents from their parents as a deterrent to migrants. It said the practice is “deeply and profoundly damaging” to a child’s emotional development and will result in “predictable neurological damage, childhood post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other avoidable disorders.”
The Canadian Paediatric Society has also stated that this country’s pediatricians agree that separating children from parents can cause lasting harm.
"Children and adolescents can be extremely resilient, but the capacity for resilience has limits. Involuntary forced separation...will result in predictable neurological damage, childhood [PTSD], depression and other avoidable disorders." #KeepFamiliesTogether https://t.co/ltnv47T60W— CdnPaediatricSociety (@CanPaedSociety) June 19, 2018