Separating families is the not the solution to the migrant problem

Jul 1, 2018

I recently wrote an article about the tragedy facing Venezuela, and the river of refugees and immigrants seeking comfort.  I’ve been thinking for weeks about the misery and hardships these people are enduring every day, and my heart aches. That they are swimming in a river of tears is hardly an exaggeration.

Most disconcerting, however, are the draconian policies enacted in the U.S. and reported by the world press.  One must strain to make any sense of it, but the damage is genuine and will hobble the citizenry far after we are all gone.

Regardless of your political views, tearing families apart, and/or incarcerating children, even with family members, as a condition of government policy is abhorrent.

In April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors along the border to “adopt a zero-tolerance policy immediately” for illegal border crossings. That included prosecuting parents traveling with their children as well as people who subsequently attempted to request asylum.

White House officials have repeatedly acknowledged that under that policy, they separated all families who cross the border.

Meanwhile, decades of research on child development confirms that children develop best in the context of safe, supportive, nurturing relationships. Positive relationships with primary caregivers are essential for children’s healthy physical and emotional development.

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For children who experience severe traumas, parents provide an crucial protective shield and help children regulate their emotions and reestablish a sense of safety, which affects their stress-response system, health, and well-being.  Conversely, if children are traumatically removed from their parents, or face incarceration at a young age, their physical and mental health and well-being will suffer. The effects of traumatic experiences — especially in children who have already faced serious adversity — are unlikely to be short-lived: cumulative adversity can last a lifetime. Child health and welfare is an area in which there is no room for ambiguity. The only reason to remove children from their parents is the risk of harm from maltreatment. There is no justification for incarcerating children for crimes they are unable to comprehend.

These decisions are among the weightiest responsibilities held by the state and, when made, are considered only as a last resort to keep children safe — generally to protect them from serious and lasting effects of maltreatment. It is deeply worrisome that the U.S. government would endanger children and families to deter other families from crossing the border — a purely political goal of an administration that seeks to blame outsiders for the economic and social ills faced by Americans.

Child-welfare systems in most states are already overburdened, and struggle to meet the needs of the children they are intended to serve.  Punishing babies, and youngsters for political reasons will increase the odds that many children will fall victim to serious mental and physical difficulties that will follow them throughout their lives.

Child protection is a bipartisan issue, and the U.S. should approach these vital with informed evidence from the fields of medicine and developmental science.

What is required now is to combat policies that research tells us will hurt children.

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