RELEASE: Experts Sound the Alarm on the Impact of Family Separation on Children

Washington, D.C. — Yesterday, thousands of medical experts and mental health professionals and researchers sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and Attorney General Jeff Sessions calling for an immediate end to forced family separation at the border, citing concerns from the medical community over the trauma and potentially long-lasting damage it has on children’s health and well-being. This comes on the same day that thousands of people across the country rallied to protest the family separations resulting from the Trump administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy.

Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress hosted a press call with Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) and researchers to discuss how family separation affects the welfare of children. Below are highlights from their remarks:

Neera Tanden, President and CEO, Center for American Progress:

This issue should stir shame and outrage in every decent-hearted American. Each day, families are being torn apart because of the Trump administration’s cruel policies, despite their right to asylum under international and domestic law. Innocent people are fleeing to America to save their own lives and the lives of their children, but instead of finding shelter or respite here, they are finding nothing but pain and cruelty. This is not who we are as a nation. The Trump administration’s actions have inflicted unspeakable damage—damage that will have lasting effects for years to come.

Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), lead author of the Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections (HELP) for Separated Children Act:

No child should have to face the terror and confusion of being ripped away from their family … Whether this happens at the border or during interior enforcement raids, no child should have to endure this trauma. I was moved to action on this after hearing a story of a child left alone after an immigration raid in my home state of Minnesota. In 2006, after Immigration and Customs Enforcement carried out an enforcement action in Worthington, Minnesota, a second-grader came home from school to find his 2-year-old brother alone with his parents gone, and for the next week, that second-grader cared for his brother while his grandmother was driving to Worthington to meet and take care of them. This is unacceptable and immoral, and it is using children as a deterrent. Children shouldn’t find themselves suddenly abandoned, whether at home, at school, or at the border. The bill I introduced is called the HELP Separated Children Act, which focuses on children being ripped away from their parents during interior detention actions. It provides common-sense measures like allowing parents to make calls to arrange for the care of their children and make sure children can visit their parents when detained. This administration’s zero-tolerance policy is breaking apart families, and it’s deeply unsettling.

Karen Olness, Professor of Pediatrics, Global Health and Diseases, Case Western Reserve University; fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Children without parents may put themselves at greater risk of accidents, injury, and exploitation. If children separated from parents have no reliable caretakers, they are at greater risk… This leads to long-term negative cognitive effects … Children fleeing their country may already be vulnerable and may already have experienced various degradations and exploitations even before they reached the border. If a loss of parents is added to that, they suffer even more.

Megan Gunnar, Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Child Development at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota:

When children are torn from their parents for prolonged periods, it can create toxic stress … While not all children that we are ripping from their parents will realize the full consequences of toxic stress, many may. They will be set on developmental pathways toward impulsivity, poor academic achievement, a sense of aggression, and/or depression. This is an extremely high price for these children to pay who have done nothing wrong simply so that the U.S. can punish their parents as deterrents to others. Everything the science tells us says that we need to stop this practice immediately and return these children to their parents.

Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Professor of Globalization and Education at New York University Steinhardt:

Studies on large workforce raids and the detention and separation of children find that these policies can result in lower emotional well-being, greater behavior problems, and higher rates of mental health problems. On the academic side, we have some evidence of lower school performance and attendance … The current situation at the border could be likely worse because the separation is happening at the same time the child is crossing into the United States as often a result of violence in the home country.

For more information or to speak with an expert, please contact Rafael Medina at rjmedina@americanprogress.org or 202.478.5313.