Donald Trump backs down on family separation — but the trauma could last a lifetime

Trump finally yielded to widespread outrage on a shameful policy, but its damaging effects will linger for years

Published June 21, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

Children and workers are seen at the Tornillo tent camp which houses immigrant children separated from their parents after they were caught entering the U.S. under the administration's zero tolerance policy. (Getty/Joe Raedle)
Children and workers are seen at the Tornillo tent camp which houses immigrant children separated from their parents after they were caught entering the U.S. under the administration's zero tolerance policy. (Getty/Joe Raedle)

The stories have played out every day in recent news: Children pulled, sobbing, from the arms of their mothers and fathers who are whisked off to jail while the little ones are put in government custody or foster homes. Lest we think these are rare stories exaggerated by an overeager news media, the statistics tell a different story: Customs and Border Patrol statistics presented to Congress just this month reveal that in a two-week period in May, 658 children were split from their families.

President Trump's executive order on Wednesday may have ended the worst and most egregious aspects of this policy. But it did little or nothing to relieve the larger crisis, and the destructive effects could linger for years to come. Not only was this policy a direct affront on the common values we share as a society, it also flies in the face of the administration’s own federal funding strategies of keeping at-risk families together when safe to do so.

As mental health professionals presented the research evidence on how family separation leads to genuine trauma and long-term adversity, and while attorneys mounted their cases that such fundamental family interference was unconstitutional, children by the hundreds have been made to endure untold crisis in the latest salvo in the battle over the larger question of immigration.

Since trauma is a term ambiguous enough for some in political debate to misuse, I feel I owe readers some clarification in the form of research support. I am trained as a clinical social worker, having worked with youth in foster care, and most recently, as director of a child advocacy center, which helps assure that children alleged to have been victims of abuse are served and supported by the system in a child-safe and trauma-informed manner. In this world, which includes multidisciplinary collaboration among prosecutors, law enforcement, social services, medical professionals and mental health professionals, the term evidence-based practice is a cherished concept.

Indeed, at the bedrock of our practice, in understanding and responding to children and adults in need of services, is the landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study from the 1990s. ACEs is relied upon by researchers, practitioners and policymakers around the globe as the established evidence-based baseline for childhood stress and long-term negative outcomes. ACEs’ findings and the findings of related subsequent studies, including those related to family attachment and family resilience, evidence how adverse experiences such as economic hardship, exposure to violence and, yes, family separation are correlated with future social and emotional problems such as mental health disorders, substance abuse and divorce. They are also linked to physical health problems such as cancer, emphysema and heart disease. In short, stress kills, and U.S. citizens and other residents experience a lot of it.

If one of the learning lessons from ACEs is that many middle-class Americans are more traumatized than we once thought, through childhood exposure to divorce, substance abuse, domestic violence and so on, then another must certainly be that we have an obligation to consider the experiences of children whose families have risked everything to escape the hardship, violence and trauma experienced in their homelands -- and who have then been met by border agents who stripped them from their families and placed them in federal custody.

Ironically, family separation as a policy and practice is at odds with the federal government’s own approach to responding to the needs of children in need of services. Congress, through its recent passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act, authorized mental health therapy, substance abuse treatment and other services for children at risk for abuse when deemed appropriate to remain with their families. In other words, at the same time that the child-welfare funding landscape is shifting toward keeping families together, the attorney general launched an initiative to tear immigrant families apart.

Attorneys have also argued that this policy runs afoul of due process with regard to families’ rights. Becky Wolozin, an attorney for the Immigrant Advocacy Program for Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, Virginia, argues that there is ample case law and precedent honoring a liberty interest in family preservation. Even for non-citizens, there has to be a compelling reason for the state to intervene, and parents being charged with a misdemeanor for unlawful entry does not on its face constitute “unfitness” to parent.

In essence, under the Trump policy in place until now, children crossing into the U.S. with their families are forced into “unaccompanied” status after their adult family members are charged with a crime, after which the children are funneled into facilities for “unaccompanied minors.” They were of course “de-accompanied” forcibly and against their parents’ will in the first place.

The federal government justified its destruction of families by playing cop, social worker and judge in one stark series of actions: seizure and detention, glutting an already overloaded system, and at least temporarily orphaning children into ill-equipped military bases and refurbished former Walmart stores.

The fact that this policy has now been abandoned or at least mitigated should do nothing to lesson the shame and outrage that it ever happened. Just imagine if this logic of lowering the bar of parental fitness was played out for other crimes in the U.S. – for felonies such as DWI and tax evasion. In our culture that ostensibly prizes the fundamental importance of family, if children were ripped away for such transgressions by their parents and placed automatically into detention centers and group homes, the American public would bring forth untold outrage and action.

Somehow, in the case of immigrant families crossing the U.S. border, despite all the trauma we can assume they will experience through being seized, through all the shifty use of the law used to justify their institutionalization and despite modern child welfare practices shifting toward keeping families together, their humanity and right to mental wellness is deemed by many in the public as “less than” and deemed by current federal policymakers as something to be used against them.

Advocates for vulnerable children won at least a minor victory this week. There is great power in collaboration. Let us hope that those who possess family values for all and not just some will coordinate their expertise and efforts and work in unison to make sure this human rights violation is not forgotten and is never allowed to recur. Just as the U.N. Security Council deemed rape and other sexual violence a tool of war in 2008, perhaps it should identify family destruction similarly in 2018.

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By Ian Danielsen

Ian Danielsen is an assistant professor of social work at Longwood University.

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