This article is part of a bimonthly series that will address early child development.
#ChildrenInCages is a trending hashtag on Twitter and Facebook these days as US citizens try to absorb the enormity of what their government is doing in the name of enforcing immigration law. Children as young as four are being forcibly removed from their parents at the borders, kept in separate facilities – cages – and are awaiting an uncertain fate.
Politicians are using them as hostages (Trump says Democrats should just agree to build the wall and the problem will be solved) and deterrents (administration officials say asylum seekers will think twice now before trying to illegally enter the country), while parents agonise over where their children are and whether they will ever find them again.
“Once the parent and child are apart, they are on separate legal tracks,” said John Sandweg, who was acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Obama administration. Reunification becomes particularly difficult when a parent is deported without the child and is no longer on American soil, Sandweg said; in those cases, “there is a very high risk that parents and children will be permanently separated.”
Whatever the politics, the impact of such trauma on children’s emotional, cognitive and physical development is well understood. It is nothing less than catastrophic. Dr Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics recently visited one of the centres operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and was deeply disturbed by what she saw.
The staff were doing their best, she explained. They were feeding, bathing and diapering children regularly. But they were thwarted by rules forbidding them to touch them in any way outside of these essential functions; by law, they said, they could not pick the babies up for a cuddle or calm them when they were distressed.
It all sounded eerily familiar.
For anyone familiar with child development, the automatic association is with a landmark longitudinal study done on Romanian orphans who had been brought up in institutions. Similar to the children snatched from their parents on the US borders, these children were also taken care of physically: they were fed, bathed and diapered. But no responsive adult played with them, responded to them or held them. When they cried, they were ignored.
These children suffered massive brain damage. In spite of adequate physical care, albeit regimented, the neglect of their social and emotional needs caused their brains to develop differently from those of normal children. Their brains were measurably smaller and contained actual “black holes” where development had simply stopped. These areas tended to govern social and emotional development, leaving them unable to bond with others even after they were adopted and raised by loving families.
The suffering and neglect these children experienced has had a sad silver lining: it has advanced the study of neuroscience dramatically, giving professionals scientific evidence for what common sense has always known to be true: children absolutely require loving, responsive, dependable adults in their lives. Simply providing food, clothing and physical safety is not enough. There is no substitute for the responsive consistent presence of a caring adult.
And that is precisely why Dr Kraft of the American Academy of Pediatrics was so worried by what she saw at the Office of Refugee Resettlement. She saw children detained in border prisons in states of high distress – a two-year-old who could not stop screaming, for example – and she knew exactly what was going on: Children need to be able to trust that the adults in their lives will take care of them, she explained. When we take them away from their parents, we destroy that trust.
Children who have just endured the perils of a long journey in harrowing conditions are already stressed. The only security they have is their parents. To arrive at the border – the very place they have been told they need to get to be safe – and to then be swooped up by strangers and taken far away from the only people they know is a special version of hell (to say nothing of irony).
The age of the child is important and the younger the child, the more long-lasting the impact. Megan Gunnar, a child psychologist at the University of Michigan said that while children under the age of ten are of deep concern, “Those under five should get us all running around with our hair on fire to get this practice stopped.”
This is not hard to understand and it’s not hard to fix. Regardless of one’s views on immigration, asylum and border control, the science is clear: children belong with their parents. If parents are going to be deported anyway, why add to the trauma (and expense) of removing their children to care which will only make things worse? What possible purpose is served?
That two-year old who Dr Kraft observed in such distress was probably still crying when she left. “The really devastating thing was that we all knew what was going on with this child. We all knew what the problem was,” Kraft said. “She didn’t have her mother, and none of us can fix that.”
There are problems we can’t fix, but this isn’t one of them. This one is simple. Donald Trump? Get that baby back to her mother. Better yet, don’t take her away in the first place.