Separating families at border is child abuse, 'plain and simple'

Deliberately separating children from their families, as the Trump administration is doing in the name of stemming illegal immigration, may indeed turn out to be a “tough deterrent,” as White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has described it. After all, the premise underlying this approach, however unnerving it may be, seems intuitively sound; that is, few parents would knowingly risk losing their sons or daughters if they could avoid doing so.

A significant number of the adult targets of this punitive policy will continue taking the risk, of course, based on the belief that they and their children will face even more-dire repercussions if they remain in their home countries. Furthermore, irrespective of the extent to which the policy accomplishes (or doesn’t accomplish) its stated objective, I agree completely with the chorus of critics who — for a broad array of reasons — have derided it as cruel and morally bankrupt.

That said, from my perspective as a longtime student of research, policy and practice relating to adoption, foster care, attachment, parent-child separation and permanency for children, it’s clear that we’re giving short-shrift to the most-immediate reason this punitive tactic needs to end: It is institutional child abuse and therefore traumatic by definition. So, no matter what its other consequences, it will almost certainly cause long-term harm to its youngest victims.

No one needs to learn about studies on forcibly broken attachment to understand that a child placed into foster care in a new country, one whose language and customs he doesn’t know, after being taken from the arms of her mother — both of them crying and screaming — will suffer some immediate and ongoing negative impact. Moreover, few among us think the U.S. child welfare system is a really great place to methodically send children who come from intact, loving families in which there’s no evidence of abuse or neglect.

The American mental health community has accumulated many decades of information that’s relevant to the current situation, drawn primarily from research and experience relating to other circumstances in which children are involuntarily and/or forcibly removed from the custody of one or both biological parents.

Among the key insights within this extensive body of knowledge are that, from the start and into the future, the affected children can feel guilt, shame and other self-deprecating, undermining emotions; they can be highly susceptible to post-traumatic stress and other psychological disorders; and, more generally, they can develop mental health problems that are similar to and sometimes worse than the maladies that afflict young victims of physical or sexual abuse.

The extent of the trauma obviously depends on numerous variables, notably including the child’s age, but the vast majority of professionals would agree that even unforced separation from parents can and likely will have an adverse impact, including on children who are very young at the time; indeed, that’s why this accumulated knowledge informs child welfare law, policy and practice throughout the United States.

There’s no hint that it is being applied by U.S. immigration authorities, however, as they carry out the Trump administration’s decidedly family-unfriendly immigration policy. Furthermore, amid all the verbal gymnastics being used to justify the policy, there have been multitudinous explanations about the need to change adult behavior, but there’s been not a syllable from the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services or any other pertinent component of government about protecting the widely accepted gold standard in dealing with kids and youth in our country.

It’s called “the best interest of the child.”

Intentionally traumatizing innocent children is not in their best interest. It’s child abuse, plain and simple. Whatever strategic goal the White House may be trying to achieve, this cannot be rationalized as an acceptable tactic.

Adam Pertman (apertman@ncap-us.org) is president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency (NCAP) and author of the book “Adoption Nation.”

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