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Forcibly separating children from parents can have long-lasting emotional and physical consequences

Courtesy CBP/Handout via REUTERS
A view of inside U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility at Rio Grande Valley Centralized Processing Center in Rio Grande City, Texas.

Many health professionals and organizations have condemned the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border to deter families from migrating to the United States. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), for example, has decried the policy, saying it will cause the children “irreparable harm.” The American Public Health Association called the practice “inhumane,” and warned that it would have “a dire impact on [the children’s] health, both now and into the future.” And in an open letter to President Trump, the American Psychological Association (APA) warned that the emotional trauma caused by such separations would have long-lasting emotional and physical consequences for many of the children.

“Research also suggests that the longer that parents and children are separated, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression are for children,” the letter says.

To learn more about the emotional and physical effects that being forcibly separated from a parent can have on children, MinnPost spoke Tuesday with child psychologist Megan Gunnar, who is director of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. An edited version of that conversation follows.

MinnPost: What were thoughts when you first heard about the Trump administration’s policy of removing children from parents trying to immigrate to the United States?

Megan Gunnar: This is horrible. This is unwise. This goes against everything we know. 

MP: And what is it that we know? What effects does such separation have on children, both short-term and long-term? 

MG: The effects are going to be different for children of different ages. Let’s take the under-5 and under-3 [age groups] first. For children under 5, we should be running around with our hair on fire. If you’re that young, your primary source of security in strange places, in strange situations, is being able to have access to your parents — your attachment figures. We’ve evolved this way. It’s a very powerful motivational system: When things are strange and scary, stay near mom or dad. If you’re able to do that, your biology is going to be regulated by the behavior and your contact with that person, such that you can go through things that are pretty dang challenging and your physiology will remain pretty calm. 

MP: Would you explain why that’s important for the child’s long-term development? 

MG: That’s important because stress biology, especially during periods when our brains are developing, is capable of shaping the brain in a way that will allow us to survive in highly risky contexts, but may make it very difficult for us to function in settings like school. When we take children away from their parents — forcibly take them away under conditions that are highly novel and very scary and into settings that are very strange, not to families immediately, but to these strange holding facilities — this is going to activate stress biology big, big, big time. And that biology, which will keep throughout this duration in various ways, will be shaping brain architecture. No question about it. 

MP: One supporter of the Trump administration’s policy has compared the immigrant detention centers where the children are being held to “summer camps.” What do you think of that comparison?

Megan Gunnar
Megan Gunnar

MG: I am actually having a little trouble breathing right now, hearing that somebody would say that. Summer camp is something that your parents have chosen for you and very often you have been part of that decision. You know when you’re going, where you’re going, and you know when you’re getting back. And you have every reason to believe that you’ll be safe. Two of the big aspects that trigger stress are lack of control and lack of predictability, and, for children, lack of access to their parents. Also, you’re not sent to summer camp when you’re 3, right?

MP: What kind of attention and care from professionals do children in these kinds of situations need? Also, how many trained child psychologists, social workers and other child caregivers are needed in relationship to the number of children? 

MG: Let’s start with the conditions. A very young child separated from their parents needs to be in a context where they are cared for consistently by one or a very few number of people who they can become highly familiar with, who will understand who they are. And the ratios need to be very small — about three to one, like you were going into a family. Even under those circumstances, when a child has been traumatized this way, it’ll be a challenge for that caregiver to be able to provide what the child needs. 

I looked at the requirements for one of the companies mentioned as [running a detention and care system for immigrant children on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services]. What I found was completely appalling, but not surprising. The caseworkers — the care workers, the ones that would be one-on-one with the children — [only] need to have a high school diploma or GED and experience working with youth, paid or unpaid. In other words, you could have been a babysitter. They also need to be computer literate and something else. But in terms of knowledge of children, almost nothing. And Spanish is preferable but not required. 

MP: There have been reports that some people working in these facilities say they have been instructed not to hug or hold the children to comfort them. What does that kind of situation do for the children? 

MG: Those reports are horrifying, if true. But there have also been reports that it’s not true. My suspicion is that some people are reading federal regulations one way and others are reading them other ways. If these requirements [regulating touch] were designed for some of the unaccompanied minors who are teenagers, you could imagine why. So maybe [the staff at the detention facilities] are misreading or misapplying [the regulations in regards to younger children]. I would hope that that is cleared up quickly. It adds a layer of devastation. It’s remarkably similar to research that was done years ago, when we tried to understand the effects of stress on development by separating monkeys from their mothers for various periods of time, typically a week to two weeks. I actually did a study like that, a two-week study, and observed the animals during that period of time. So we know the biology of what happens to those animals during that period of time. It’s a very massive stress reaction. 

MP: And what is the long-term effects of that stress reaction?

MG: Well, as long as we’re talking monkeys, let’s stick with monkeys. There was a paper put out way back in 1985 that looked at pigtail macaques that had experienced a two-week separation from their mother before they were 12 months of age. [Twelve months is the human equivalent of about four years.] The macaques were now adult, but their immune system still showed evidence of the earlier separation. Their [natural killer T cells] were not able to proliferate as quickly when they were stimulated with a pathogen. The immune system was compromised. We have roughly comparable data on kids who were reared in orphanages, although not on kids following a brief separation. Nobody’s got data like that. But there’s no reason to suspect that it would be different with kids. We’re primates, you know. 

MP: What will need to be done to help these children when they are returned to their families? 

MG: The chances are high that we’re affecting both parents and the kids. So, you’re delivering back to the parent a traumatized child, and you’re delivering that child back to a traumatized parent. We’re potentially, then, making it more challenging for many of these parents to help their child repair from the experience. That means that if we wanted to actually repair the damage, it would require support from counselors and others. That’s a lot of money — a lot more than putting an ankle bracelet on the parent and sending them off and telling them to show up in court [which used to be the policy with immigrant parents and children who entered the U.S. seeking asylum].

MP: You talked about your concerns regarding the children under 5. What about the older children who are being separated from their parents at the border? What concerns do you have there? 

MG: I have a lot of concerns for them. But they may also have some more coping skills. The kids who are optimists are probably going to function OK. The kids who are more on the pessimistic side and the anxious side are going to have really big challenges. And, of course, it depends on what they experience. Any time you try to ramp up a child welfare system this quickly, you’ve got to be concerned about everybody that you’re hiring. It’s going to be hard to hire a really high-quality workforce in every instance. And then there are the teens. The teens are a whole different ballgame. 

MP: And what are your concerns there?

MG: They are kids. They are still kids. They are still trying to sort out who they are and what they are and where they’re going and what their identities are. Doing that while you’re incarcerated could be a major, major issue. Hope for the future is terribly important for all of us. The teens [who are separated from their parents and detained at the U.S. border] have a better understanding of where they came from and what the challenges were there, so I could imagine that for some of them [being detained in the U.S.] looks at least as physically safe. But you need to have hope in the future.

Many, many kids are going to be very resilient. But it’s like we’re playing Russian roulette with these kids’ brains and bodies. 

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 06/20/2018 - 09:46 am.


    There will also be an economic reckoning years from now when those kids who will suffer long term consequences and then will use the justice system for recompense. An example being the Canadian residential school scandal that has/will cost them over 5 billion dollars. Add in the costs of debt from Trump’s tax cuts and we will eventually learn that Trump has put all his whimsy on a credit card that we will pay off long after Trump is back scheming with bankrupt hotel properties.

  2. Submitted by richard owens on 06/20/2018 - 10:21 am.

    We have become an outlaw nation in the community of nations.

    Violating human rights, exiting international agreements, breaking our word to the WTO, to the Iran non-proliferation agreement, joining Israel is even more brutal acts of Apartheid, refusing to work with our allies or even Global Warming mitigation, and telling lies, lies, lies to American citizens and the whole world.

    …as NY Times Frank Bruni:(today)

    ” Why don’t we call the terrified children whose incarceration is riveting the country what they are at this point?”

    “Not migrants. Not detainees. Not pawns, although that comes closest to the mark.”

    “They’re hostages.”

    [end quote]

    State-sponsored kidnapping and child endangerment are crimes of the most heinous nature.

    • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 06/20/2018 - 12:31 pm.


      Can add to that list the Saudi bombing of Yemen, along with strong U.S. military support, that is responsible for one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent times. Of course, the corporate media largely ignore this matter.

  3. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 06/20/2018 - 12:10 pm.

    Why Have an Expert Comment?

    Trying to convince this administration and its ardent followers using science, reason, or facts on a course of action is a lost cause. So maybe empathy, decency, … ah, never mind.

    • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/20/2018 - 03:14 pm.

      Why have an expert comment?

      An expert isn’t needed to recognize the obvious: that a better system to permanently damage human beings hardly could be devised.

  4. Submitted by LK WOODRUFF on 06/20/2018 - 12:59 pm.

    Only the most corrupt and vile

    would even think of ripping innocent, suffering children–who have already lost their homes and endured a long, miserable journey–from their parents arms.

    And only the most weak and spineless would support it. Talking to you, REPs et al.

    The Trump regime needs to be removed from power before they do any more despicable things.

    The REPs should expect to be replaced in the Fall 2018 elections.

    All rational, thinking Americans with hearts should take back their country.

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