Brain Science is Clear: Child Separations Will Have Major Long-Term Negative Impacts.

What do we do? We want to hear from you. 

By: Sarah Lyman, Executive Vice President, and Shivon Brite, Program Director/Director of Strategy

Undoubtedly, the federal child removals at the U.S.-Mexico border will have horrific consequences for the children currently being detained, their families, and other undocumented immigrants. We've seen the heartbreaking impacts of child removals upon Native American communities. Indian boarding schools traumatized hundreds of thousands of children in the 19th Century. Native or not, research proves that forcefully removing children from communities results in poorer public health and devastating losses of cultural wealth.  

Even since President Trump’s executive order, latest counts show roughly 3,000 children are still detained, with little clarity about whether, how or when they will be reunified with their parents. On June 26th, a Federal Judge in California ruled that children and parents separated at the border must be reunited within 30 days. While this is clearly a major milestone, there is still much uncertainty about how this will play out. According to pediatricians and other professionals on the ground, some of the children have been moved to other parts of the country, and many are falling through the cracks without paper trails, making it extremely difficult for parents or other professionals to locate the children. There have been allegations of abuse by patrol officers, and children as young as infants are being neglected and left to cry without physical contact by a caregiver day after day. 

Brain science is clear. Being separated from a parent is a traumatic experience that has lifelong negative impacts on brain development for children. A Harvard study found that children who experienced foster care are nearly twice as likely to suffer from Post  Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than U.S. war veterans returning from tours in Iraq. Now, layer the extreme fear and anxiety experienced by children in these detention centers onto that, where their fate is completely unknown to them, and they are experiencing physical and emotional neglect for extended periods of time in a language many can’t understand or speak.

This is a dangerous and tragic cocktail for vulnerable children who have been stripped of their support system and their human rights. 

As has been clearly validated through many studies, including the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, childhood traumas like these are strongly associated with adulthood high-risk health behaviors (smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, severe obesity), as well as poor health including depression, heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and shortened lifespan. Compared to an ACE score of zero, having four adverse childhood experiences was associated with a 700% increase in alcoholism, a doubling of risk of being diagnosed with cancer, and a 400% increase in emphysema as an adult. 

Even if these current actions by our government are reversed and children are actually reunified with their parents in the short term, there is no question that these traumatic experiences will have lasting negative consequences. This is a humanitarian crisis - plain and simple. 

Have we not learned anything from our painful history as a country? 

The Indian boarding schools devastated Native communities. Under the pretense of helping Native Nations, the U.S. promoted this assimilation policy with the slogan “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Most of the hundreds of thousands of children were forced into these schools through starvation, where the Federal government withheld food rations until families relinquished children, or kidnapping, where government officials stole children from their homes. Many of these children died from homesickness, working accidents, uncontrolled diseases, and ill-planned escape attempts. Graveyards still sit behind these school dorms and classrooms. These schools were abolished in the 1940’s, but the damage had been done. The surviving children came back to their communities without their Native languages, life ways, religions, or parenting models. They were forever changed and deeply traumatized.

Today, the cumulative effects of these types of human rights violations are called “historical traumas.” Research on historical trauma shows that there are multi-generational health harms. Whether its Jewish children removed in Auschwitz or Native children removed in Washington State, the collective health outcomes are the same – lower life expectancy, poorer health, worse quality of life.

As Shivon Brite, Program Director for EHF’s Native American Health portfolio stated: 

“These child removals are breaking our hearts. We are still living the impact of these types of policies. Impacts that have turned our once large and vibrant communities into a minority among minorities who endure the worst health – period. This discussion needs to include our Tribal leaders. This is our story less than a century ago.” 

It is our duty and obligation as a country, and as fellow human beings to help. Empire Health Foundation is a regional health foundation focused in a small seven-county region and we’ve been asking ourselves: what can we do? What are value-added roles we could play in an effort to step up in the face of this humanitarian crisis? Even though the acute impact is happening in a geographic region far away from our defined service area, the effects of these policies and practices have deep ripples throughout the country and throughout our region. 

Admittedly, we feel somewhat helpless. But some initial ideas of things EHF could directly support include:  

  • Support convenings of local Hispanic/Latinx communities as well as experts such as pediatricians, legal advocates, trauma professionals to identify ways to provide critical counseling, mental health and language services support to the children and families impacted. 
  • Help educate regional groups and policy makers about the impacts of trauma and evidenced based strategies to mitigate the long-term impacts of trauma.
  • Connect mobilized professionals and organizations to other funders who might be able to provide financial resources or link people to existing coordinated efforts.
  • Participate in regional funder networks focused on supporting organizations and efforts working with immigrants and refugee populations.

What else should we be doing to stand up and support families and children in crisis? We want to hear from you.