Editor’s Note: Daniel P. Keating is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and author of “Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity – and How to Break the Cycle,” published in 2017 by St. Martin’s Press. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The Trump administration’s family separation policy, which separated asylum-seeking parents from their children at the US border, may have just been stopped with the President’s executive order, but it doesn’t erase the psychological impact and biological damage that these migrants have already endured. If the new approach fails to pass legal scrutiny, a real possibility, such separations could resume.
These children did not get to the border on their own. They are entirely innocent by any standard. But the trauma of forced separation from one’s loving family and its lifelong consequences are hard to overstate. The biological impacts are scientifically irrefutable. Toxic stress and trauma quite literally “get under the skin.” They alter brain circuitry and functioning, as well as the way that genes work, through a process known as “epigenetic methylation” that can turn genes on and off. Researchers have only begun to document the many ways that these changes to gene function can wreak havoc on the developing child, including even fetuses. But what we already know is striking.
We now know that both brains and genes “listen” to their social environment, and the message of this policy’s enactment is clear. The world is dangerous and won’t support you. The core impacts of trauma and toxic stress include the disruption of their stress system, leading to lifelong behavioral problems, cognitive difficulties, chronic inflammation, impaired health, and even early death. Their attachment system will also be damaged, leading to persistent difficulties in making and sustaining successful relationships.
In brief, toxic stress and trauma inflict long-lasting physical and mental damage. When parent-child separations are legally required in other contexts, such as demonstrated or suspected abuse or neglect, extreme provisions are required to balance the harm versus the necessity of removal, typically including legal representatives and court-appointed guardians for the child. No such provisions are even contemplated for these brutal, policy-driven, involuntary family separations at the border.
The policy sparked widespread revulsion from many sources, including numerous professional and medical organizations, and all living first ladies of the United States. The collective outrage was intensified by the fact that these dreadful forced removals in our name were carried out deceptively in some cases – “We’re taking your children so they can get a bath.” Almost unbelievably, this policy was even enforced with babes in arms, including a breastfeeding infant.
The administration’s defenses have only made matters worse. The policy was announced explicitly as a way to stem the flow of asylum-seeking refugees. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy as a deterrent, stating that if you don’t want your family ripped apart, don’t come. In other words, it’s a feature, not a bug. President Trump sought to deflect blame, claiming that this new policy was merely following the law – it isn’t – and, remarkably, he said, “The Democrats have to change their law – that’s their law.” Sessions then argued that the new enforcement regime is Biblically mandated, citing Romans 13 – a featured verse in the defense of slavery prior to the Civil War.
And even with the executive order, there is no guarantee that all families will remain together. While signing the order on Wednesday, Trump said families would be detained together “where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”
Anyone, whether they are parents or not, can grasp the emotional pain of these forcible separations. It is sheer terror for your children to be forcibly taken away from you, with no idea where they are being taken, who will be caring for them, or when you will see them or even communicate with them again. The emotional pain feels even worse when it is being carried out by government agents – what recourse do you have? This helplessness is magnified when one comes to learn that the children are being held in what can only be regarded as incarceration, including the use of cages and with adults not allowed to offer hugs or comfort. The plans for reunification of previously separated families is not addressed in the executive order, and the longer this takes, the more damage will be done.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has quite accurately identified this policy as “government-sanctioned child abuse.” But it’s even worse than that. The avoidable infliction of long-lasting physical or mental harm by any state actor in order to obtain a policy goal, such as information or coercion, is a clear definition of torture under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The fact that it is being inflicted on a third party – innocent children – leaves a dark and growing stain on our country. As if that weren’t sufficiently damning, it is also clear that this practice goes directly against the core of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which mandates that state actors make every effort to protect children from harm and support their nurturance to the best of their abilities in developmentally appropriate ways. The US government is not only failing to protect children, it is actively torturing them to achieve a policy goal.
Every effort must be undertaken to halt this inhumanity without delay. It is far past time for Congress to exercise its authority, or be seen as willfully complicit in this torture of the innocents.