LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border risk lifelong damage to body and mind due to the trauma, brain experts said ahead of Thursday’s deadline to reunite all families.
“Extreme stress during early childhood creates a lifetime of increased susceptibility to a number of both medical and psychological difficulties,” Daniel Weinberger, a psychiatrist and neurologist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“Parental separation among strangers, in a strange land, is a severe early childhood stress with long-term, lifelong implications for the health of the individuals,” said Weinberger, the director of the Lieber Institute for Brain Development at Johns Hopkins University.
Some 2,500 children were separated from their parents under U.S. President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which saw children sent to multiple care facilities across the country and parents incarcerated in detention centers or federal prisons.
Many of the families entered the U.S illegally, while some sought asylum at border crossings, fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Charles Nelson, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Harvard University, called the separations a “heartless act” that could re-traumatize any children who have witnessed crisis at home.
“Did they leave a country in turmoil or with high levels of violence? I bring this up because by the time they get to the border, and they’re separated, there may already be a susceptibility to further trauma,” he said in a phone interview.
“This is egregious and completely unnecessary. It’s a heartless act. No good is going to come out of any of this,” said Nelson, who has spent decades researching the long-term impact of abandoning children in orphanages and foster care.
In late June, President Donald Trump ended the practice of splitting up families after audio and video of children wailing and sitting in cages sparked international outrage.
As of Monday, at least 879 parents had been reunited with their children, according to a joint court filing by the government and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Another 463 parents were no longer in the United States but their children were, and it was unclear when those families would be reunited. The government could not say whether they were deported or left voluntarily.
Children under five were reunited with their parents earlier this month, although the government missed a court-ordered deadline for doing so.
Nelson said toddlers risked forgetting their parents and older children were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
These children were also likely to have heightened anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioral problems such as aggression or sleep disturbances, said Nelson.
The biological fallout was equally concerning, said Weinberger.
He said under fives were particularly sensitive to extreme stress, since cells and organs can be damaged by a flood of the stress hormone cortisol and other biochemicals in the body.
Studies have shown that people who have suffered severe early childhood stress are more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, Weinberger added.
“These severe stresses in childhood don’t guarantee that your life becomes one of difficulty and adversity, but it increases the susceptibility of these problems,” Weinberger said.
Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories