In the past 12 months, despite an executive order to end the policy allowing the separation of migrant children from their parents, followed by a judicial order to reunify those families, our government has continued to separate and traumatize children.
One might ask how this tragedy continues to occur – you could be forgiven for thinking both orders would have ended the matter. However, that is not the situation we find ourselves in, and certainly not the situation the 5,700 children in Texas shelters are in.
There were loopholes in the court’s decision: children could still be separated from parents with criminal histories, or considered dangerous to the child, or if they suffered communicable diseases.
All seemingly reasonable stipulations, except that advocacy groups who are face to face with these families are reporting the government is inappropriately exploiting those loopholes – reducing the orders to ineffective words on paper. Examples include children taken away from a parent for violations such as driving with an expired license or experiencing a brief hospitalization. They can also be separated from other relatives such as siblings or grandparents. We would never tolerate such flimsy pretenses for taking away children from U.S. citizens.
This result has been more than 700 immigrant families separated after the policy supposedly ended.
The organization I lead – TexProtects, the Texas chapter of Prevent Child Abuse America – makes no claim to immigration policy expertise. We’ll leave the crafting of immigration crisis solutions to those who do.
Instead, our expertise is in children and policy that impacts them – specifically, how to keep children safe from trauma. And make no mistake – being separated from a parent, regardless of the situation, is itself an extreme trauma.
TexProtects fights tirelessly to make families stronger and more resilient, helping prevent crises that lead to child removal. Putting children in foster care must be the measure of last resort – all options for keeping a child safely with his or her parents must be explored before taking the extreme measure of separation.
We’ve worked to embed this philosophy within our government, gaining lawmakers’ support for prevention programs and strengthening family preservation services.
That’s why the current policy is unthinkable. We are witnessing the government, rather than protecting children from harm, actually inflicting trauma upon children as an instrument of policy.
The trauma goes beyond taking children away from parents, which is painful enough. Recent news reports have exposed children, including toddlers, being warehoused in horrific and dangerously unsanitary conditions.
This will not be a minor event in these children’s lives. During the Texas Legislative Session, TexProtects educated lawmakers across the state on the consequences of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) – severe events such mental illness, violence or substance use within the home, an incarcerated caregiver, or abuse or neglect.
In our ACEs Uncovered report earlier this year (http://bit.ly/acesuncovered), we outlined long-term consequences that can result from such experiences.
Research has shown that left untreated, people who suffered multiple adverse childhood experiences had, in adulthood, higher rates of disease, disabilities, social and mental health problems including suicides and suicide attempts, depression, a high number of sexual partners, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, smoking, substance abuse, and early death.
Now, we – through our government – are creating more children who, assuming they survive this ordeal, could grow up with such health consequences.
As said, TexProtects will “stay in our lane” on immigration and refugee policy and refrain from suggesting what actions should be taken.
However, we have a moral imperative to rule out what action should not be taken: willfully traumatizing children absolutely cannot be an option.
Even if the policy produced the president’s desired result of fewer border crossings (it has not, as detentions and migrant deaths have surged again), hurting children would still be unacceptable.
Americans are outraged when parents abuse or neglect children. We must be equally outraged when our government does the same.
Sophie Phillips is the CEO of TexProtects (texprotects.org).