Since the implementation of a “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal crossings at the Southern U.S. Border in early May, over 2,000 children have been separated from their parents, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Under this policy, parents arriving at the border are criminally prosecuted and detained, while their “unaccompanied” children are transferred to shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Many of these shelters put thousands of miles between parents and their children with no established lines of communication between them.
Most of us cannot imagine the horror of having our children taken from us or, even worse, being a child inexplicably separated from our parents. There are circumstances where this is necessary, such as when parents severely abuse their children or when a parent is jailed for a crime. Yet even in those circumstances, efforts are made to place children with family members and ensure continued contact with family members. Under current circumstances at the border, children are taken from their parents and housed in tents and other sites without anyone remotely familiar to care for them.
Evidence of the negative impact on young children separated from their parents is abundant. Separation of young children from parents disrupts attachment to parents, which is critical to future health and development. An important tenet of “attachment theory” is that caregivers must be present and accessible in order for their children to become attached to them. The first two to three years are the most critical periods of time in a child’s development to develop this attachment, or they risk irreparable psychological harm. In fact, several scientific studies have shown that a mother-child separation of a week or more within the first two years of life is associated with higher levels of child negativity and aggression. Other studies have shown that disruption of this attachment also negatively impacts reading achievement. Finally, studies have demonstrated that separation from mothers is associated with serious mental health conditions. Physical proximity between parents and children is critical in developing this attachment.
Separation from families is traumatic for older children as well. Placing children in warehouses and tents is imprisonment. Many of these children are attempting to escape traumatic events in their home countries, and this policy only adds more trauma to these children’s lives. New research has begun to show that cumulative adverse childhood events, such as those suffered by these immigrant children, lead to poor health outcomes.
The most egregious part of the current policy of separating children from their parents is that it is utterly needless. Families crossing the border are seeking help and a better life for their children. This is a moral issue. No recognized religion is okay with separating children from families unnecessarily.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been out in front on this issue, releasing a statement that condemned the policy as contradicting “everything we stand for as pediatricians.” Pediatricians widely recognize the toxic impact of separating children from their parents, and material comforts do not replace attachment between parents and their children. The costs of allowing this current policy are too high. Children must not be used as a political tool — this must stop now.
Dr. Adirim is a physician executive who still practices medicine as a moonlighting pediatric emergency medicine physician. She is a tweetiatrician (a pediatrician who tweets) at @TerryAdirimMD. She has no conflicts of interest to report.