By implementing a “zero tolerance” immigration policy, the United States Department of Homeland Security has forcibly separated thousands of families in the past six weeks, sending children to massive detention centers across the country while their parents are placed in detention centers or deported. Many are rightly saying that this policy is unjust. As an organization dedicated to policy and support related to children who have been separated from their birth families, we are calling it government-sanctioned traumatization.
Working daily with children who are or have been in foster care and their parents, we have seen the devastating effects of family separation firsthand: the loss of a parent or family can be one of the most distressing experiences a child can undergo, and the effects can be lifelong. Not only must the children currently entering our country cope with the traumatic experiences that made them flee their home country, but they now must also suffer the psychological effects of parental separation and the emotional strain of adjusting to the massive, bare, and unfamiliar detention centers.
While some in the administration have responded to the outcry about this practice by pointing out the quality physical care these children are receiving— in detention centers like the converted Walmart in Texas that houses more than 1,400 boys—we know that physical needs are only part of the equation. These children are being denied the essential comfort of love and family during what is probably the most tumultuous and isolating time of their lives.
The result of this undeniable trauma cannot be understated — these early years of development are essential to a person’s later well-being, and disruptive experiences at this stage can mean a lifetime of challenges related to brain development, relationship-building skills, and physical and mental health. Research shows that children experiencing this type of trauma face higher rates of mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-esteem issues, regressive behaviors such as bedwetting, and cognitive delays.
Our government should be dedicated to making children’s lives better, not inflicting lifelong damage to score political points. Government intervention in removing children from families should be used only in desperate times, when a child is being harmed and has no one to turn to. No moral society forcibly removes children from caring, able families — especially not as a deterrent for other people’s future actions. Harming thousands of children cannot be touted as teaching a lesson to future immigrant families facing their own desperate situations.
When asked about this practice of separating parents from children at the border, the White House chief of staff John Kelly told National Public Radio that “the children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Not only does this statement demonstrate the administration’s dismissal of their inherent responsibility to offer all children safety, well-being, and care—it also completely disregards the serious challenges facing today’s foster care system.
Largely due to the opioid crisis, many children in foster care are staying in group homes, shelters, hotels, and even social work offices because there aren’t families to care for them. By removing children from their families inappropriately and unjustly, the government places the weight of thousands more children on this already struggling system, effectively creating a child welfare crisis.
Since our founding, we at the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) have fought for a government that protects children’s best interests — the best and most elemental principle of child welfare law. This means building laws, policies, and practices that not only defend a child’s physical safety, but also their need to grow and develop in a loving, safe, and familiar environment—no matter who they are or where they come from. Our decades of experience have repeatedly shown that keeping children with their loving families is the first and best way to ensure positive outcomes for children.
NACAC calls upon the U.S. government to return to this fundamental principle, rescinding this new zero-tolerance policy and keeping immigrating families intact. It is unconstitutional and immoral to do anything else.