Skip to content

Separating children from their families is cruel: The evidence is clear

The horrific images we’re seeing of children separated from their parents as part of the federal government’s new immigration policy are all the more devastating because I know what that trauma means for the children and their families. By training, I am a child clinical psychologist and I’ve worked directly with youth separated from parents due to a host of reasons, from parental addiction to parental death. The children I have worked with were mostly living with other relatives or with foster parents — settings much more humane than the tents or warehouses in which we are now placing children whose parents are seeking asylum. Yet, the pain for the children I worked with was obvious and real as they struggled to develop a sense of worth and belonging.

I am also familiar with the decades of child welfare research, led by some of the nation’s top scholars in clinical and developmental psychology, social work, public health, and pediatrics that shows — beyond any doubt — that there are enduring and often lifelong health and mental health consequences of traumatic parent-child separation, both for parent and child. The damage for children is especially acute and can interfere not only with mental health and emotional development, but with brain development itself. The fact that American tax dollars are being used to knowingly inflict lifelong trauma on children is a stain on our national character.

The significant moral and ethical issues at stake are recognized across the full range of the political spectrum, and previous administrations, Republican and Democrat, have balked at taking this step in the name of protecting our borders. There are practical issues as well. The kinds of long term outcomes associated with trauma of this sort are not only debilitating depression, self-loathing and doubt, but can also include an inability to connect with others, diminished empathy, anger and aggression.

This cruel and inhumane new standard policy of enforcement at our borders should be swiftly rescinded or legislatively corrected. And I urge our lawmakers to pass legislation preventing this cruel practice from ever happening to children and families again. As educators, our obligations are to the future, and there is no question that if we allow this practice to continue, we will find ourselves on the wrong side of history. The time to speak and act is now.