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Separation Stress May Permanently Damage Migrant Children

Children form a line as undocumented immigrant families are released from detention at a bus depot in McAllen, Texas, June 22, 2018. Experts say being separated from their parents can take a heavy toll on children.

After President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday, families seeking refuge from violence in their home countries are no longer being separated at the U.S. border. Still, more than 2,300 migrant children are living in shelters without their parents, and the Trump administration doesn’t have a plan in place to reunite these children with their parents.

One mother from Guatemala cried Friday as she held her young son for the first time in a month. Agents separated them after she crossed the border in May. “Te amo. Te amo.” “I love you. I love you,” she repeated as she kissed him and wrapped a blanket around him.

The mother, Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia, sued the U.S. government for separating her from her 7-year-old son. The lawyer who helped her worked for free.

A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018.
A view inside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility shows children at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas, June 17, 2018.

Long-term consequences

Government video shows children being held in cages, lying under Mylar blankets. They have also been placed in tents and shelters throughout the U.S., some as far away from Texas as Oregon.

The American Medical Association warned that as a result of being separated from their families, these children could suffer health consequences that could last a lifetime.

Separation Stress May Permanently Damage Migrant Children
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Dr. Colleen Kraft, the president of the American Association of Pediatrics, has taken an active role in speaking out for these children. She warns that children who are exposed to toxic stress do not develop language or other skills at the proper age as a result of the trauma of being forcibly removed from their parents.

Trauma causes the body to produce high levels of stress hormones that can kill brain cells, affect the heart and cause children to regress. Some regress to wetting themselves. Others could develop a stutter. Some develop behavior problems.

“It may take a long time for this trauma to be resolved and these children to be healed,” Kraft said.

No one knows that more than Dr. Lisa Fortuna, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston University Medical School. Fortuna works with migrant children separated from their parents. She says the family separations have been going on for some time, and it’s very hard on children, no matter their age.

“I’ve had multiple kids tell me about feeling very cold, not eating enough, not having support of their parents or adults that care about them and that that was very, very distressing for them,” Fortuna said.

Touch important

Caregivers at some of the facilities where the children are being held say they are not allowed to touch even very young children. These rules were put in place for teenagers, but Myriam Golden, a social worker who specializes in treating traumatized children, says touch is very important, especially for small children.

“When you rock a child, they can hear your heart rate. You can hear their heart rate, and it is through that co-regulation, children can be soothed,” she said. Goldin is one of the founders of the Gil Institute for Trauma, Recovery and Education in Virginia.

Fortuna says a parent’s touch teaches a child that they are being taken care of and loved. She says if children are not touched, they can become despondent and withdrawn. They don’t learn how to relate to others. They lose the ability to trust. They can stop expressing emotion even if they are reunited with their parents.

Goldin cites a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Adverse Childhood Experiences, that shows that early childhood experiences have a profound impact on future violence and victimization. Goldin says the study proves scientifically that if the needs of children are not met, long-term mental and physical health problems can result.

Not every child separated from their family will have permanent health problems, but young children are the most vulnerable, and the separation from a parent can compound the stress they may have already experienced in unsafe conditions in their home countries.