family separations
Alia Salem

What We Owe to the Children Ripped from Their Parents at the Border

Researchers have called “adverse childhood experiences” the single most powerful factor in health, social and economic well-being, a hidden epidemic more damaging than cancer or heart disease.

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When my oldest child, Bryce, was a toddler, I lost him on an elevator.

I was very pregnant with my next baby. As we headed for our hotel room with stroller and luggage, Bryce ran a few steps ahead and reached the elevator first. I couldn’t waddle fast enough to get there before the doors closed. I took the next car, but found myself going up while he went down and into a dark basement. For nine floors, until I could get to him, his screams echoed up the elevator shaft.  

The whole episode lasted only a few minutes, but my son had nightmares for days afterward. I did, too.

What has been happening on the Texas border in recent months are those nightmares multiplied thousands of times: parents and children, even infants, separated not for a few minutes but indefinitely, in care of individuals who, by news accounts, seem much more like prison guards than people focused on children’s needs.

The stories are almost more than some of us can bear, alleviated somewhat by a federal judge’s recent order that the children be swiftly reunited with their families. But worse than the wails of bereft toddlers and pictures of them in cages is what we can’t see or hear: the damage that being ripped away from their parents has done and will continue to do to those children, even after they are reunited. It’s the kind of damage I have seen time and again in my career as a child psychologist, and I know that it can act like an untreated cancer, burrowing and spreading in young psyches.

So many children arrive at our border seeking safety because they had none in their birth countries.

On June 20, bowing to immense domestic and international pressure, President Trump finally rescinded his administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy that resulted in the separation of these families. Two weeks later, it’s still not clear what plan the federal government has for getting more than 2,200 children back to their parents. Some parents were deported without their children or any information on their whereabouts. The Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal aid organization representing more than 300 parents, had only been able to find two children as of last week.

All of this should be a crime.

The way these children are still being treated is exactly the kind of “care” that the mental health community agrees causes lasting psychological trauma. It follows almost point for point the description in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 of conditions that lead to what is called reactive attachment disorder: repeated changes in primary caregivers; children being raised in institutional settings with little chance for stable attachments; and a care system that routinely fails to meet children’s emotional needs. Reactive attachment disorder can be a lifelong problem, making it hard for sufferers to form close bonds. That leads, in turn, to a cascade of problems for them and for society.

At the U.S.-Mexico border, some caretakers apparently were instructed not to hug or pick up the incarcerated children. One physician told the New Yorker that she was called in to attend to an 8-year-old who, after being held for a month with no word about his parents, was threatening to harm himself. When she offered a hug, the boy jumped into her arms and started crying — at which point one of the guards muttered that she was “rewarding bad behavior.” Another threatened that “… he won’t be reunited with his parents unless he behaves.”

family separations
Children leave a detention center on a bus.  Alia Salem

Neuroscience research has shown repeatedly that such trauma can alter a child’s brain development and brain chemistry, and therefore, physical and social development in ways difficult to undo. By changing the action of genes, the effects of trauma may even get passed along to future generations.

In the past two decades, scientists’ understanding of what happens in infancy and childhood has changed profoundly. The development of healthy attachments to others is now understood to be so important that, as one of my colleagues says, it should be “a fundamental birthright for all.”

A groundbreaking study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente in the late 1990s concluded that “adverse childhood experiences,” such as losing a parent to any sort of separation or having a household member go to prison, are a major factor in predicting adult diseases and disability and are involved in the 10 most common causes of death in this country. Researchers have called such experiences the single most powerful factor in the health, social and economic well-being of society, a hidden epidemic more damaging than cancer or heart disease.

Congress in 2001 created the National Child Traumatic Stress Network to promote the study of childhood trauma and to educate a wide range of professionals about it. The research, indeed, won’t help unless those in the family law and child welfare system — and, we can now see, our immigration and refugee detention systems — understand and use it.

The critical nature of information on trauma was brought home to me a decade or so before the CDC study. A group of parents I’d been working with was at their wits’ end in dealing with extreme behavioral problems in their children, adopted through Texas’ foster care system. Years of being safe, well-cared for and loved in their new families had not changed the behaviors. The state had adamantly refused to release any information on birth families or early experiences of the adopted children.

The development of healthy attachments to others is now understood to be so important that, as one of my colleagues says, it should be “a fundamental birthright for all.”

This was before mental health professionals understood the key role of attachment trauma in childhood. We were all flying by the seat of our pants. Often, it was desperate parents who challenged us to find new answers.

Finally, the frustration boiled over. “Somebody ought to sue their asses” to force release of the children’s histories, one parent said.

So the parents did. The federal lawsuit, settled before trial, forced Texas for the first time to open those records so adoptive families could learn about earlier traumas. One child couldn’t bring himself to eat rice – it turned out he’d been fed maggot-infested food as a baby. Another absolutely refused to take a bath – because some other adult, years earlier, had tried to drown him in a tub.

For the first time, adoptive parents could use their children’s attachment histories to address behavior and make a difference to their futures.

Now imagine another lawsuit, against the federal government, challenging more deliberate harm to children. As the member of our parents’ group said all those years ago, somebody oughta sue. And they have. It was the ACLU’s legal action that brought about the judge’s order to put families back together.

A Fox News host told viewers recently that the incarcerated immigrant children are not “our” children. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he is doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas,” Brian Kilmeade was quoted as saying.

He’s wrong. We owe every bit as much to this group of children as to any Idaho or Texas kids. Because it is this country that has inflicted the harm.

So many children arrive at our border seeking safety because they had none in their birth countries. The families fled here to protect their children, to give them a safer, better place to grow. The separation of such kids from parents at the point of presumed safety is shocking and potentially even more damaging emotionally and neurologically.

Bryce, now 32, told me that when he heard about what was happening on the border, he immediately thought of the elevator incident. It’s been decades, but the terror of those few minutes is still sharp in his memory. We must do everything we can to lessen the terror and trauma that our government has chosen to inflict on these children on our borders. They are, in every way that counts, our children.

Child psychologist Barbara Rila is a former president of the Dallas Psychological Association and former chair of the Texas Postadoption Advisory Committee. She currently works with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. Rila and journalist Gayle Reaves are working with marriage and family therapist Cathy Chalmers and child psychologist Michael Pines on Dividing the Baby, a book about the attachment revolution.